WEST WARWICK — As most of its residents know, nearly everything in Rhode Island seems to be steeped in history — including its steeples. From the iconic spires of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul to the aging brownstone of St. Mary’s, Newport (where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were wed), the story of the Diocese of Providence is written not just in lime and mortar, but in the vibrant parish communities each of these venerable buildings house.
The oldest church in the diocese, however, is also one of its most unassuming. Tucked away in a sleepy side road in Crompton (the village in West Warwick whose gently sloping hills represent the exact geographical center of the state), Old St. Mary’s Church certainly lives up to its epithet: it is actually older than both the town and even the diocese which it now calls home.
Except for a brief period in 1980 when the church’s foundation was lifted in order to be slightly repositioned, the modest white belfry of St. Mary’s has kept a silent, peaceful lookout on the town below since 1844.
However, that sense of peace and quiet was briefly interrupted by bagpipes and joyful celebration on Sunday, May 5, as the parish commemorated its 175th Anniversary with a special Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin.
After celebrating Mass, the bishop helped to bless and dedicate a new shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus outside the parish, accompanied by a Knights of Columbus honor guard and a remarkable crowd given the rainy weather. The construction of the shrine was made possible by a lengthy list of Anniversary Donors, all of whom were honored for their generosity in a special plaque on the shrine’s reverse side.
The event marked another milestone for the parish as well. Father Douglas J. Spina, the pastor of St. Mary’s for much of this decade, will be retiring in June and then moving to Arizona shortly thereafter.
“This is the threshold of a new and exciting chapter for St. Mary’s,” Father Spina said, though he acknowledged that he will miss the community which he has ministered to since 2012. “You and I have journeyed far together,” he told the congregation in an address after the Mass. “I feel very grateful for these years I have lived in the midst of a faithful, generous and loving people. As a man and as a priest, I am greatly blessed.”
The new pastor of St. Mary’s will be Father Nicholas Fleming, currently assigned to SS. John and Paul Church in Coventry. Father Fleming will also be leading SS. John and James Church in downtown West Warwick. A proposal currently being considered would have St. Mary’s become a mission parish of SS. John and James this summer. Both parishes have very deep roots in the town, with church buildings that date back to the 19th Century and families that have been members for many, many generations.
Kyla Renaud, an 8-year-old who attends Father John V Doyle School, belongs to one such family — she is a seventh generation parishioner at St. Mary’s, and was asked by Father Spina to offer a special welcome to the bishop at the beginning of the service.
In his homily, Bishop Tobin reflected on this history in light of the Gospel reading, in which Jesus repeatedly asks Peter whether he loves him.
“Every generation is required to answer this question,” the bishop said. “And we rejoice that for 175 years, the people of St. Mary’s have answered with a resounding ‘Yes, Lord, you know that we love you.’”
Many parishioners made special arrangements in order to be present at the afternoon Mass, including Paula Reyes who is a waitress at Cracker Barrel who usually works the afternoon shift.
“As soon as I found out it was going to be at noon, I made sure to ask my manager to give me the long shift on Saturday instead so I could make it,” she explained.
Her friends Joan Newman and Betty Jalbert are also members of St. Mary’s, and helped influence her decision to join the parish after the closing of St. James.
“People in this area don’t move very frequently, so a lot of us have been here for a very long time,” Jalbert said, noting that she has been a parishioner at the church for over 50 years.
The church itself has actually moved once, however, during renovation work in 1980. Although the workers tried to change as little as possible of the original building during the construction (which reinforced the 1840s foundation and also added a new parish hall), there were some unfortunate casualties.
“We had these two really beautiful murals that you can see in the older photos in the parish hall,” recounted longtime parishioner Joe Huether. “But they were badly damaged during the reconstruction. It was really too bad that we lost them.”
For the most part, however, St. Mary’s still looks much the way it has throughout its long and storied history — a history that has also included many painful moments, ranging from the Civil War to the deadly 2003 fire at the Station Nightclub (which had stood just one street over from the church).
“St. Mary’s actually came into being in the midst of conflict and disparagement,” Father Spina said. “In 1844, the idea of a Roman Catholic church here in this part of Rhode Island was unthinkable by most of the local residents, so construction was met with much opposition, resentment and even hostility.”
Father Spina attributes the church’s ability to survive this unwelcoming reception — as well as its remarkable staying power since then — to the watchful eye of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Marian title to which Old St. Mary’s Church was originally dedicated. “Mary inspired unity and peace where conflict and division once flourished,” he said. “And a century-and-three-quarters later, this marvelous little white church on Crompton Hill is still Mary’s home.”
It is for this reason that Father Spina remains optimistic about the future of St. Mary’s. He ended his farewell letter to the parish by writing that he would pray “the seeds of the Gospel may continue to mature and ripen in you, who are my pride and joy. We have labored long in the vineyard of the Lord, and now it is harvest time. Even so, much more awaits us. There are additional challenges to be met — new, exciting journeys yet to be trod.”