WOONSOCKET — St. Charles Borromeo Parish’s final Mass at the historic Catholic church built by the Blackstone Valley’s Irish community at 8 Daniels St. is at hand and Albert Beauparlant wants all local Catholics to know it.
In fact Beauparlant, head of the Save St. Charles Borromeo Committee that includes longtime parish members Richard Monteiro and Lisa Ethier, is hoping the local Catholic community will join St. Charles parishioners at their final Mass on Sunday, January 12, to support an ongoing bid to keep St. Charles Parish operating.
“I say it is the most historic building in Woonsocket,” Beauparlant said. “As the very first Catholic parish in the city, it should be the last to close,” he added. “It stands as our Vatican, and it is something Catholics in the city have known for 174 years,” Beauparlant said.
The parish’s campaign for survival has already won a partial concession from Bishop Thomas Joseph Tobin of the Diocese of Providence in that St. Charles will remain a consecrated church after it closes but the Diocese has not relented on his second decree to “suppress” the parish and in effect dissolve it and its holdings.
First and foremost, Beauparlant said this week St. Charles’ historic standing as the very first Catholic church in Northern Rhode Island makes it worthy of saving.
For now, at least, the Jan. 12 Mass, the only service scheduled by the Rev. Joseph Upton that weekend, will be the last to be celebrated in St. Charles, according to Beauparlant. Rev. Upton is pastor of All Saints Catholic Community on Rathbun Street and administrator of Charles.
Plans for the final Mass have not yet been announced but Beauparlant said he expects it will be a significant service given the parish’s upcoming 175th anniversary next year that was to have highlighted its founding in 1846.
As part of the ongoing bid to save St. Charles from a full shutdown, Beauparlant said he will be placing announcements in local media next week asking area Catholics to come out in support of St. Charles.
No stranger to organizing big events in the city, Beauparlant, a real estate developer and property manager, has been a motivating force behind such local commemorations as the city’s 100th and 125th anniversary celebrations as well as religious themed events such as his revival of the Feast of St. Jean the Baptiste in 2018.
Going up against the intentions of the Diocese of Providence regarding the fate of St. Charles, however, may be his biggest challenge to date.
At stake in the suppression of St. Charles parish under Canon Law, the system of laws maintained by the Catholic Church to run its operations and member organizations, is the dissolution of St. Charles and its assets, according to Beauparlant. The endowments and property would all fall under the control of the Diocese and no longer be directed to their original intent of maintaining the parish as is now the case. Ethier, secretary of the Save St. Charles committee, said that while next Sunday is scheduled to be St. Charles’s last Mass, the group is still hoping to change that endpoint for the parish.
“It’s the last scheduled Mass and we want everybody to be here on Jan. 12, but we are working to see that it’s not the last Mass,” she said. “We don’t want it to be the last parish Mass and we’re still asking the Bishop to rescind his second decree and allow St. Charles Parish to continue,” Ethier said.
Although St. Charles parish has declined to a shadow of its former parish strength, just 90 registered members according to Diocese numbers, the parish remains far from insolvent, according to Beauparlant.
The parish has an endowment of $1.8 million and assets such as the 70 acres of undeveloped land it owns abutting its 20 acre St. Charles Cemetery in Blackstone that are resources available to maintain the historic cut-stone church.
St. Charles was erected between 1868 and 1870 as a replacement to the original wood-built church and was designed by noted church architect Patrick Keely, an architect for more than 600 churches such as the Diocese’s own Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence and St. Mary’s Church in Newport.
It’s hallmark stain glass windows depicting religious themes were added in the early 1900s and interior changes to the main altar just before World War I.
The parish’s role as a first religious home to the many Irish Catholics arriving in the Blackstone Valley in early 1800s, some having worked on the granite features of the old Blackstone Canal or laboring in Joseph Bannigan’s rubber company in the 1880s, also makes it worthy of saving, Beauparlant noted.
St. Charles was even a first home for some of the French Canadian, Polish and Italian immigrants to Woonsocket before they established their own parishes to an eventual list of 13 local Catholic parishes in the 7.4-square-mile city, according to Beauparlant.
Dr. Patrick Conley, president of the R.I. Heritage Hall of Fame, of which Beauparlant is also a member, has described St. Charles as playing a key role in the area’s success overall.
When a strike erupted at Bannigan’s company in 1885, St. Charles Pastor Michael McCabe stepped up to intercede between the sides. It was under McCabe’s leadership around the same time that the parish’s remaining debt was paid off.
Bannigan’s contributions to the Catholic church in Rhode Island resulted in his knighting by Pope Leo VIII, Beauparlant related.
Conley can also point to St. Charles parishioners such as James Howard McGrath, a U.S. Senator and U.S. Attorney General, Terrance Murray, the former CEO of Fleet Bank, Woonsocket Mayor John Cummings, “The Last Hurrah” author, Edwin O’Conner, and famed opera singer Eileen Farrell, a graduate of Woonsocket High School, as making their contributions to the state and nation.
“Dr. Conley says St. Charles is really a cornerstone of Woonsocket history and it is an iconic place,” Beauparlant said.
What the future holds for St. Charles parish remains to be seen, according to Beauparlant. The Save St. Charles Borromeo Committee has hired a Canon law attorney to argue its case for keeping the parish running and in possession of its assets, he noted.
The outcome of that process is yet unknown, but Beauparlant said the committee believes the endowments and the land in Blackstone could all be used to maintain the parish while it seeks to expand its membership and take on new challenges such serving as a center for the history of the Catholic church in Rhode Island.
The parish’s outstanding debt is just $455, he noted, and ideas such as the development of a solar farm on the Blackstone land or some other use could help fund needed repairs and improvements at the church.
“There are several avenues to raise money and keep the parish running,” he noted.
Beauparlant hopes other Catholics in Woonsocket will see the merit of keeping St. Charles as a place of city worship and show their support by attending the planned last Mass at St. Charles.
“This is one day for people to come out of the high rises and one day to show support for the souls of our ancestors who built this beautiful church in the city,” Beauparlant said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75