JOHNSTON — In 1963, Bishop Russell J. McVinney tasked Father James Joseph Cooney to embark on a mission to establish a new Catholic parish in the city. Father Cooney took his mission very seriously, going door-to-door, encouraging residents to help him form a new parish.
“This parish was established under the patronage of St. Robert Bellarmine for the good of the souls of the large number of the faithful residing on the fringes of St. Thomas Parish,” Father Richard Narciso, the current pastor, said of those who decided to join the parish at its inception from St. Philip’s Parish, St. Joseph’s Parish, St. Brigid’s Parish, Our Lady of Grace Parish and others.
Father Narciso recently welcomed Bishop Richard G. Henning to celebrate Mass to mark St. Robert Bellarmine’s 60th anniversary.
“As we come together to celebrate 60 years of praise and worship and blessings and service to the community, we give thanks and praise to God for the spiritual gift and holy privilege of being part of this parish family,” Father Narciso said.
Bishop Henning spoke of how Father Narciso was one of the first priests who reached out to him when he came to the diocese earlier this year.
“I was very struck in that conversation by how good and gentle a shepherd he really is. I know he is a good pastor to you, and I thank him for his commitment to his vocation here in this wonderful parish,” Bishop Henning said.
St. Robert Bellarmine Parish was canonically established on August 27, 1963, by Bishop McVinney. The first Mass was held on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8, 1963, at the Johnston High School, and daily Mass in the chapel in the rectory at 1804 Atwood Ave.
On March 21, 1965, parishioners gathered and watched as Father Cooney, the first pastor, accompanied by his trustees, Edward Halpin and Michele Damiano, and the pastors of the neighboring parishes, broke ground at the 10 ½-acre site of the new church, located in the Cherry Hill section of Johnston. The property was previously owned by the Gemma family and included a house, garage and barn.
Eight months later, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1965, the church was blessed, and the first Mass was celebrated by Msgr. John L. Drury, vicar general of the Diocese of Providence. Bishop McVinney officially dedicated the new church on March 13, 1966. The cornerstone was laid at that time and the marble altar was consecrated.
Vincent DiMonte, a member of the parish’s anniversary committee, has been a parishioner for the past 45 years.
“It’s a very caring parish community,” he said.
Father John LaPointe, the pastor who retired in 2009 after serving as shepherd there for 28 years, served as a concelebrant.
“It was a joy and a pleasure to see the people’s faith and love and commitment to Christ and to people in need,” Father LaPointe said. “The parish had a very Christlike heart to it and the parishioners’ faith always strengthened my faith.”
Father Narciso, who has led the parish since 2019, in addition to serving as director of Pastoral Care at Fatima Hospital, said it was a true homecoming for him to be assigned at St. Robert Bellarmine.
“I’m very grateful to be here as pastor of this parish community during this 60th anniversary celebration,” he said. “Since my arrival back at the parish in 2019, I really feel like I’m home.”
Father Narciso grew up in North Providence and has already performed weddings of family members and the grandchildren of others.
He is especially proud of his parish community, noting how they were so generous in the diocese’s Grateful for God’ Providence capital campaign that St. Robert Bellarmine was able to install a vertical platform lift system, manufactured and fitted by Garaventa Lift, in order to make the lower level of the church building accessible to all.
Bentley Companies, of Warwick, served as the general contractor and provided construction management services. Long-time parishioner Bart Catanzaro served as a parish-based project manager and liaison with the contractor.
The campaign resources also funded the construction of a handicapped accessible restroom off the main foyer for the comfort of parishioners.
Bill and Maureen Fenner were just two of several parishioners using the elevator to access an anniversary luncheon in the church hall after Mass.
“This is fabulous, we’ve never had one of these before” Maureen said.