St. Charles’ Church of Woonsocket, Rhode Island

Since 1920 Rev. Cornelius J. Holland has been the able pastor of St. Charles’ Church of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

St. Charles’ parish is the oldest Catholic parish in northern Rhode Island. As early as 1828 Rev. Robert D. Woodley visited Woonsocket and said mass in the house of Walter Allen, a generous Protestant, for the ten Irish Catholics who were then living in the town. That house, a two-story Colonial structure in Great Road, known as the Osborne House, is still standing (1930). Father Woodley’s ministry to this district ceased in 1831. During the next ten or fifteen years the successive priests who had charge of Providence or Pawtucket occasionally visited Woonsocket, which was then a small mill town. By 1834, when the first Catholic census was taken, there were thirty Catholics in Woonsocket, and mass was said for them by Rev. James Fitton. From 1834 to 1846 Woonsocket was under the jurisdiction of Father Fitton, who also ministered to Pawtucket, Newport, and Crompton, under appointment by Rt. Rev. Benedict J. Fenwick, bishop of Boston diocese, which then included all of New England. Up to 1841 mass was said in private houses, but in 1841 Mr. Ruel Smith opened to the Catholics the hall attached to the old Woonsocket Hotel. On October 10, 1842, the sum of $1,300 having been collected, “a lot of land near Social Village, on the Mendon road and Daniels Street,” was purchased through Michael Reddy for $185, and the first little wooden church, sixty by forty feet, was completed at a cost of $2,000 in 1844. In November, 1846, Father Fitton was appointed pastor of Newport as a separate parish, and Rev. Charles O’Reilly became pastor of St. Charles’ Church in Woonsocket. Father O’Reilly remained in charge from 1846 to 1852, and during that time he established a cemetery, which was later transferred to Blackstone and is now known as St. Paul’s. He also, in 1848, enlarged the church by an addition eighty by one hundred and twenty feet, twice the size of the original building, at a cost of $6,000. In February, 1852, Father O’Reilly was succeeded by Rev. Hugh Carmody, who served until March, 1854. Next came Rev. Thomas F. Hendrigan, but a week later he was succeeded by Rev. John Brady, who in March, 1855, resigned and left the diocese.

During that same month, March, 1855, Rev. Michael McCabe took charge. From that time until December, 1893, with the exception of an interval of three years, from 1866 to February, 1869, Father McCabe worked at the task of moulding and fashioning St. Charles’ parish into a model organization. The parish then numbered about 1,600 souls, almost all Irish immigrants, scattered over a wide territory. Father McCabe at once began to plan for a new church, but he first cleared the parish of its debt of $2,233, built a vestry at a cost of $600; purchased land on which the present rectory stands, moved the rectory to the new site, and enlarged and improved it; built on Daniels Street a school, one of the first Catholic schools in the diocese, at a cost of $3,100; and secured land for a cemetery at East Blackstone. Along with these activities he accumulated for the erection of a new church $10,300, which he left in the treasury when he went to St. Patrick’s Church in Providence, in 1866. His successor, Rev. Francis Lenihan, continued Father McCabe’s plans and removed the old church to leased land. On June 16, 1867, the cornerstone of the new church was laid by Bishop McFarland. Soon afterward, Father Lenihan died, but during his short pastorate he had recognized the need of the French-speaking people of his parish and Rev. Lawrence Walsh had been appointed to take special charge of them. Different priests took care of these French-speaking people until 1873, when Precious Blood parish was formed for them with Rev. Antoine Bernard as the first pastor.

Rev. Bernard O’Reilly succeeded Father Lenihan in August, 1867, and pushed forward the work of building the church with great vigor. In May, 1868, long before the new church was completed, the old one was destroyed by fire, and for a time mass was said in various halls. Late in the fall of 1868 services were held in the new church for the first time, and soon afterward Father O’Reilly left the diocese and Father McCabe returned, in February, 1869. His marvelous energy soon achieved the completion of the church which was dedicated October 15, 1871. From that time to the time of his death, December 14, 1893, Father McCabe devoted his great energy to the development of the parish he loved so well. The new St. Michael’s School on River Street, the gift of Father McCabe, was put into operation; the convent which is still used by the Sisters of Mercy was built on Earle Street; the present rectory was erected; and the new church, entirely freed from debt, was consecrated August 10, 1893. Along with all this a large sum was gathered for the building of a new school. In recognition of the great achievement of the parish under Father McCabe’s leadership St. Charles’ was made a permanent rectorship and the pastor was elevated to the position of vicar-general of the diocese, in which capacity he served from August, 1879, to the time of his death.

The next pastor was Rev. George T. Mahoney, who took charge in February, 1897. Early in his pastorate the parish of the Sacred Heart was set off from St. Charles’. He erected a fine parish school at a cost of $60,000, begun in May, 1897, and dedicated July 4, 1898. He also established, under Bishop Harkins, the St. Vincent de Paul Home on Pond Street, opened in November, 1905, and since that time under the direction of the Sisters of the Order of St. Francis. Father Mahoney died December 10, 1907, and was succeeded by Rev. M. P. Cassidy, February 26, 1908. Father Cassidy renovated and greatly improved the interior of the church and beautified the grounds surrounding the church and school. He also purchased property on the opposite side of Daniel Street.

St. Charles’ Church is an imposing granite structure in Gothic style, designed by the architect Keeley, and, with the exception of the top of the tower, which was the gift of Father McCabe, remains as it was sixty years ago. The interior, however, has been greatly changed. Father Mahoney replaced the wooden altar rail of the sanctuary with the present delicately carved marble one, which was moved three feet further out to enlarge the sanctuary. He also cut away the gallery on either side, from the sanctuary wall to the second column; put in new pictorial windows, rich in color and beautiful in design; put in new Stations of the Cross; and entirely redecorated the walls. Under Father Cassidy, the transformation of the church went on from, 1914 to the time of Father Cassidy’s death in 1920. Father Cassidy, with the aid of the architect, Fontaine, created the present beautiful narthex, or vestibule, by building a glass and oak partition entirely across the church, ten feet from the rear wall; replaced the narrow old pews with large quartered-oak ones; constructed a complete marble sanctuary; built a wainscoting of marble, rising four feet from the floor, entirely around the church; and laid marble tiles in all the open spaces of the auditorium and narthex. A new gallery was built where the old choir-loft stood, making the total seating capacity 1,300; and a new organ was installed. The pulpit was removed from its middle position, which gave a crowded appearance to the interior, and placed by the column by the side of the arch. Running entirely around the sanctuary walls a richly carved oak wainscoting rises to a height of fifteen feet and above this, to a height of ten feet more, the sanctuary walls are covered with taffeta in old rose, old gold, and blue. Five panels, five by fifteen feet, the work of Rudolph Schmalz of Munich, fill the Gothic spaces under the groining of the ceiling. The carved oak sedilia and the sanctuary lamp add greatly to the beauty of the sanctuary, the latter of hand-wrought bronze, in heart design formed by two peacocks who face each other, plumage drooping to unite at the base and eyes fixed on the ruby lamp. In contrast with the richness of the sanctuary are the subdued tints of old ivory and caenstone of the body of the church. The effect of spaciousness has been increased by the removal of the old confessionals, which stood out from the side walls. Two were removed to the vestibule partition in the rear and the third to the space formerly leading to the side door. The Baptistry, a chapel-like enclosure, a gem in miniature Gothic, replaces one of the old stairways formerly leading to the choir-loft.

Thus the old interior has been transformed into spaciousness and into the beauty of harmony and peace, and the devout worshipper at St. Charles’ finds his spirit lifted by the atmosphere of the place to the God in whose name all this symbolic loveliness has been created.

After the death of Father Cassidy, July 6, 1920, he was succeeded by the present pastor, Rev. Cornelius J. Holland, who took charge August 13, 1920. Father Holland is assisted by Rev. F. A. Baker, who came September 4, 1920, and by Rev. William J. Tierney, who came in September, 1926. Under the leadership of Father Holland and these two assistants St. Charles’ parish has steadily developed, and although it is not one of the very large parishes of the diocese it has been notable for its devotion, its generosity, and its loyalty. No call for aid in the erection of schools, in works of charity, or in missionary endeavor fails to bring generous response from St. Charles’, and Bishop Hickey has more than once cited St. Charles’ as an example for emulation.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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