The Church of St. Sebastian’s, of Providence, Rhode Island, was founded by its present pastor, Rev. James A. Craig, and its history is the story of Father Craig’s labors in its behalf and of the interest and encouragement of the Right Rev. William A. Hickey, D. D., Bishop of Providence.
St. Sebastian’s parish was formed from portions of St. Joseph’s and Holy Name parishes, set off by the late Bishop Harkins in 1915. with Rev. James A. Craig as pastor. Having received his appointment, Father Craig said the first Mass for his people in St. Joseph’s school hall, March 14, 1915. Thus St. Sebastian’s began its life “without a bit of land or a blade of grass, and on that first Sunday Father Craig announced that the Masses on the following Sunday would be celebrated in the building formerly known as the Cable Power House and later occupied by the Rub Dry Towel Company, on South Angell Street. A house was procured on Irving Avenue as a residence for the pastor and a place where weekday Masses could be said. During the week following the first celebration of the Mass a meeting of the men of the parish was held in St. Joseph s Hall, and the next week a meeting of the women was held and a land and building fund started. The response to the appeal for funds was prompt and generous and the first Sunday after Easter, 1915, was the last on which Mass was said in St. Joseph’s Hall. The temporary chapel was then transferred to a large garage on Orchard Avenue belonging to Mrs. William B. McElroy and a Sunday school was opened in the children’s playhouse attached to the home of William H. O’Connor on President Avenue, several young women volunteering their services as teachers. Loyalty, devotion and enthusiasm carried the work rapidly forward, and the organization of the parish work and the establishment of the church societies, the Apostles, Holy Name, Women’s Guild and other established church societies were all outlined and begun on the Sundays when Mass was being celebrated in Mrs. McElroy’s garage, and have remained essentially the same through the passing years. With the approval of the Rt. Bishop Harkins, land was selected and purchased on Cole and Lloyd avenues on the east side of the city and a provisional chapel was built in which Mass was said for the first time on Sunday, June 13, 1915. At that service announcement was made of plans for a permanent church to be erected within the year. The cornerstone was laid by Right Rev. Bishop Doran, on Columbus Day, and on the following Christmas the people of St. Sebastian’s entered their present beautiful chapel for the observance of the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity. The pastor spared no effort to suitably adorn and beautify the dwelling place of the Lord selecting with such care and discrimination altars, shrines, statues, windows, mosaics, paintings, vestments, sacred vessels and everything pertaining to divine worship, that the modest chapel became an ideal church for a parish of the proportions of St. Sebastian’s. The first trustees were the Hon. John W. Sweeney and Mr. Timothy E. Dwyer, the last-named of whom is still serving. When Judge Sweeney removed to another parish he was succeeded by the late J. B. Sullivan, who, in turn, was followed by the present associate of Mr. Dwyer as a member of the church corporation, Dr. Albert L. Midgley. Early in 1917 Bishop Harkins appointed Rev. William B. Carty as assistant to Father Craig, and to the time of his death in 1928, a period of more than eleven years, he served most faithfully. Bishop Hickey then appointed Rev. John F. Tully as assistant, and a few months later the present assistant, Rev. John Ells was appointed. Father Ells is a man of fine Christian character and is much beloved by the people of St. Sebastian’s.
Meantime, a property was secured at No. 42 Cole Avenue which served as a parochial residence until a house was secured on Slater Avenue, and a few months later, with the approval of the Bishop, the first house was removed to its present location at No. 67 Cole Avenue and the lot upon which it had stood was sold to meet the expense of removal and the building of a new foundation. The second building was remodelled into a well-equipped fourteen-room rectory which is in use at the present time. Plans are prepared to extend the rectory to suit the present needs of the parish. Early in the history of the Sunday school the Sisters of Mercy were placed in charge and they continued to direct it until the fall of
1928, when the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame came to the parish for the purpose of opening a Catholic school. In May, 1928, a house was procured for them on Lloyd Avenue and the work of remodelling this and adding an artistic chapel was completed in September, 1929. During the week of September n, 1929, the school was opened in temporary quarters, with four grades and a kindergarten class, taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame, and in the course of the next few weeks more spacious quarters were provided.
On October 17, 1929, the school on Slater Avenue, owned by the city of Providence, was sold at public auction and purchased by the corporation of the Church of St. Sebastian. It had served as a public school until the June preceding and was ready for occupancy at the opening of the fall term. During the week following its purchase some few necessary alterations and repairs were made and the first classes were held in it in less than two weeks from the date of its purchase. On the occasion of the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parish, November 21,
1929, the Rt. Rev. Bishop Hickey blessed the building and in the sermon which followed the ceremony, warmly congratulated the parish of St. Sebastian on their latest acquisition and stressed the need of the Catholic school for the proper development of Catholic life. Since its opening, the number of pupils has gradually increased and by the beginning of the next school year it is anticipated that the ideal of the church, in the matter of Catholic education, will be realized in St. Sebastian’s, vis: Catholic school accommodations for every Catholic child in the district and every Catholic child in this school.
Thus in the brief space of fifteen years the parish which began its life “without a bit of land or a blade of grass” has, through the zeal, ability and devotion of Father Craig, the generosity and consecration of his people, and the encouragement of the Right Rev. William A. Hickey, D. D., Bishop of Providence, become one of the finest parishes of the diocese, with church, rectory, convent, and school, all well-equipped and making provision for all the present needs of the parish life. St. Sebastian’s parish numbers about 1,100 souls, and the oak pews of the main body of its church provide seating for five hundred and thirty persons, while the lower auditorium seats about three hundred people. Into the record of the achievement of St. Sebastian’s has been written indelibly the name of Father Craig, organizer, inspiring leader, and beloved pastor.
Rev. James A. Craig was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and received his early training in La Salle Academy in this city. Later, he continued his studies in Manhattan College, New York City, from which he received his degree of Bachelor of Arts. When his course there was completed he began his theological training in St. John’s Seminary, at Brighton, Massachusetts. He was ordained a priest by the Rt. Rev. Matthew Harkins in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Providence, September 24, 1896. After his ordination he took a post-graduate course in Washington University, at Washington, District of Columbia, and was then appointed as assistant in the Church of the Sacred Heart at Pawtucket. There he served ably, and after a time he was transferred to St. Mary’s at Pawtucket, as an assistant. In 1915, when the new parish of St. Sebastian s was formed from portions of St. Joseph’s and Holy Name parishes in Providence, he was made a pastor and placed in charge of the task of organization and building which is involved in the creation of a new parish. Since that time his full energy and his distinguished ability have been devoted to the development of that parish, which has greatly grown and prospered under his wise leadership. The devotion of Father Craig has inspired his people with a zeal and energy which has successfully achieved much, and by successive purchases of land Father Craig has made provision for future growth and increased usefulness. The community at large, as well as the people of the parish of St. Sebastian, hold in high esteem the able pastor who brought the parish into existence.
Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.