Churches divided

Churches divided

Three Woonsocket Catholic churches, including Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, 1371 Park Ave., are looking at options to merge into one church. OLQM is the newest of the churches. Sacred Heart was first established in 1895 as a church for the city’s Irish community. Holy Family was founded as a parish to serve French-Canadians in 1902. On its sprawling campus is a former convent that now serves as Haven of Grace Ministries, and a former school sold and converted to Red Chimney Apartments. (Breeze photos by Tom Ward)
Merger of three Woonsocket 
parishes not going smoothly

WOONSOCKET – The Rev. Daniel Sweet says he’s doing his best to navigate the turmoil, tears, and strong ties to tradition involved in a city church merger that’s hitting a particularly rough stretch.

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs represents the top option going forward for three Woonsocket churches searching for a brighter future, says Sweet, and he hopes the people who remain staunchly opposed to the plan will eventually agree to make the Park Square church, under a new name, their house of worship.

At a forum at OLQM last Friday evening, March 16, Sweet tried to calm the fears of members of Sacred Heart and Holy Family parishes, many of whom offered strong reservations about the plan to close those churches and permanently join OLQM. The meeting featured several loud outbursts, failed attempts at unifying exercises, and repeated accusations that the specifics of this merger are a done deal, despite assertions from Sweet that nothing is settled yet.

Participants in the March 16 meeting never even got to part two of the agenda for the evening, discussing a new name for the merged churches, though attendee Marie Martin Gomes suggested “Holy Trinity Parish” as a possible option. The Trinity, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being one, is a good tie-in with three churches also trying to come together, she said.

The meeting followed up a trio of forums at the three parishes, bringing everyone together under one roof, said Sweet. He said the churches must submit their final resolution and proposal to Bishop Thomas Tobin, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, by the end of June.

Members of the century-old Holy Family Church, at 414 South Main St., and Sacred Heart Church, at 415 Olo St., generally represent an older demographic than the larger membership of OLQM. They said they haven’t felt welcomed during their early interactions with their new parish, saying few parishioners have greeted them with open arms. Several told The Valley Breeze they were planning a dinner the next night, March 17, but were told that no one from OLQM would be attending (OLQM parishioners later disputed this, saying 20 or more of them attended the dinner). There is a growing belief, said members of Sacred Heart and Holy Family, that OLQM simply isn’t ready to absorb other churches.

OLQM parishioners countered that a friendly relationship requires both sides to reach out, saying they’re more than willing to embrace members of the other two churches.

The alleged lack of friendly smiles from OLQM parishioners wasn’t the only complaint from others at the March 16 meeting. Ray Hebert, of Sacred Heart, said he doesn’t enjoy the practice of everyone loudly greeting each other prior to Mass at OLQM instead of taking a more reverential approach.

“I thought I was here to talk with God, not to listen to all this static in my head,” he said.

Hebert told The Breeze he’s still considering whether he wants to be part of a new church at the OLQM site, but he has serious doubts whether it will work for him.

Will the churches break apart?

Sweet emphasized that the merger plan hashed out over the last few months didn’t come from him alone, but was created with help from the pastoral council. The plan is not from Bishop Tobin or the Diocese of Providence, he said, but the Diocese remains firm that there are too many churches still open to remain viable. Church closings must be considered, he said, not in terms of dwelling on what is being lost, but “what we can gain” for a healthy future.

Sweet said he’s been hurt to hear “rumors of all kinds” being spread among parish members, many of whom were clearly in agreement about the need to establish one new Woonsocket parish from the three, but are now discussing leaving if a new “successor church” is established at the OLQM building.

“I’ve heard people’s exit strategies, and it hurts me, it really hurts me,” he said, adding that he wants to be the pastor of the “beautiful community of people” he’s met at Holy Family and Sacred Heart, as well as his own flock at OLQM.

“I want to continue as pastor of this community,” he said.

Members of all three parishes acknowledged to The Breeze that they expect many people to leave as a result of the merger. Sweet said he doesn’t expect everyone to sign off on the eventual letter to the Diocese detailing the churches’ plan, but is asking for their support in making the merger work.

The key issue that seems to be a problem is the permanent closure of parish buildings, said Sweet. He acknowledged his own affinity for the European-style ornate stained glass and archways of Sacred Heart and Holy Family, and the “great loss” many older parishioners will feel if they no longer attend Mass in those buildings. In giving up their beautiful buildings, those at the other two churches have to receive something in return, particularly the “warmest welcome possible” from those at OLQM, emphasized Sweet.

Sweet became pastor at OLQM after the retirement of the Rev. Maurice Brindamour two years ago. The Rev. Brian Sistare took over as pastor at both Sacred Heart and Holy Family at that time. Last summer, Tobin appointed Sweet to lead all three churches, with the two downtown churches becoming “sister facilities” to OLQM. Sistare was sent to St. John the Baptist Church in Pawtucket.

Sweet said he’s heard plenty of talk about some parishioners considering following Sistare to Pawtucket.

“There’s a whole lot of waffling going on,” he told attendees last Friday. “From this point onward, there’s no room for waffling. We’re going to decide on something, and we’re going to proceed.”

Attendance at OLQM Mass is easily outpacing that of the other two churches, but some questioned whether everyone will fit at OLQM. One attendee said he knows for a fact that everyone would fit at Holy Family.

Tony Cesana, a parishioner at OLQM, told members of the other churches that he and others are eager to welcome all of them as family, but said they have to accept the welcome.

“In unity there is strength,” he said. “In disunity there is destruction,” he said. The churches should “love each other and help each other through these difficult times,” he said.

A Holy Family parishioner didn’t take kindly to Cesana’s comments.

“Why don’t you come to Holy Family and I’ll welcome you,” he retorted.

Cesana highlighted the chipping paint and other maintenance issues that will make it difficult to keep up with the older churches, as well as the more affordable utility costs at OLQM.

OLQM property most 
valuable by far

Members of the two older churches said they don’t understand why the plan isn’t to sell OLQM. The value of the church’s property far exceeds that of the other two churches combined, they said, and they question why church leaders wouldn’t be looking to maximize profit by making millions of dollars on the property near Barry Field, which is also targeted for future development.

OLQM on the North Smithfield line was never even intended to be a church when it was built, but instead a gym for the neighboring school, they said, and is perhaps the last place they would choose in a church.

Sweet said the very reasons a company would want to buy the property and build a business at Park Square, high visibility and lots of traffic, should be the same reasons the church wants to keep this prime location.

“We should value that piece of real estate the same way that CVS would,” he said.

OLQM is not being used to its greatest potential, he said, but it should be. A big sign with a new name emblazoned on it should be placed right on the corner to make it as visible as possible. Passersby should say, “I think I’ll go there, that’s where everyone seems to be going,” said Sweet.

What about a compromise?

Members of the two older parishes urged greater compromise, including maintaining both a successor church and a “mission church” for those who don’t want to come to OLQM.

Mike Rapko, of Holy Family, said he and others are simply not ready to sign off on closing that church and removing services. He said the Holy Family building still has “10 years of life” after having $1 million in upgrades sunk into it. He said he found it strange that so much money would be invested in the building if its future was in so much doubt.

Rapko said Holy Family is small but prosperous and unified.

“I’m afraid we’re going to destroy that community,” he said. A temporary solution to ruining the character of the other two churches might be to maintain some Masses at Holy Family on either a five-year or 10-year basis to see how it works out, he said.

A June 30 closing would be an abrupt ending for churches that have been around for 100 years, said Rapko and others. They said they weren’t properly informed on the details of the merger plan.

Nancy Benoit, of OLQM, said the decrease in population at the other two churches, as well as the continued shortage of priests in the Diocese, makes it unreasonable to expect Sweet to maintain Masses at all three parishes. OLQM has maintained its strong numbers, she said. It’s impossible to build a liturgical community when one Mass every weekend is held somewhere else. A trial period of keeping other churches open makes no sense when the handwriting is on the wall that a complete merger is going to happen, she said.

Tears and hurt feelings

Melanie Cotnoir, a young adult volunteer in her early 20s who grew up going to youth group at OLQM, rose to urge members of all three churches to give the merger a chance. She asked everyone to do a unifying exercise to shake each other’s hands and smile, and just about everyone participated.

But when Cotnoir later tried to lead another unifying exercise, after telling the crowd that OLQM has been a welcoming community for the past 60 years, and would love to host the events of Holy Family and Sacred Heart, some of those who rolled their eyes during the first unifying exercise weren’t having it. They shouted her down and called for someone to “take them in the back room,” referring to the few younger people in attendance.

“Wow, I’m done,” said Cotnoir, sitting down and beginning to cry before going to the back of the room to comfort two teenage friends.
When Ray Hebert, who was one of those who told Cotnoir to sit down, then rose to question the wisdom of merging the churches, Cotnoir confronted him and told him he’d left the young people of OLQM in tears. She said a church that dismisses its youth and isn’t open to change will die.

Carlene Fontaine, director of faith formation and youth ministry at all three churches, defended Cotnoir and the other young people. She said she’s proud of the youth ministry developed at the OLQM.

“These young people don’t need to feel like they’re not wanted,” she said.

She said friendliness “has to be a two-way street,” or this merger will never work. If younger parishioners aren’t valued and new families welcomed at Mass, “then we’re not going to have a Catholic Church for tomorrow,” she said. Without making young people feel like they’re part of the community, schools and churches will continue to close because there are no young people, she added.

Bob Robbio, of Sacred Heart, apologized for his part in shutting down Cotnoir. The sign at the door of OLQM says to “let the children come,” he said, and it wasn’t right to make young people feel like their opinions weren’t valued.

But Robbio took issue with Cotnoir saying that OLQM will be happy to host events of the other two churches, saying the last two events at Holy Family were placed in the bulletin at OLQM and only one person from OLQM who wasn’t part of the pastoral council responded.

“Maybe you could have come to ours that we were already hosting,” he said.

Robbio agreed with Hebert that the setting at OLQM is not very conducive to prayer.

How important is a building?

Fontaine was one in attendance last Friday who believes that the Catholic Church in Woonsocket and elsewhere needs to put growth and vibrancy above love of buildings.

“Church is not about a building, it’s about God, and it’s about faith,” she said.

Pauline Riel, of Sacred Heart, said she too is tired of hearing about buildings. She referenced local non-denominational Christian churches that are seeing “numbers and numbers” of new people, saying those people are coming to church because they’re being “fed and living for God.”

Riel said she’s willing to give the merger a shot.

Sweet urged parishioners to be willing to give up a building for the sake of the yet-to-be-named new church’s future. Many people today have little interest in ornate architecture, he said, but are longing for a church that feels alive.

Sacred Heart, 415 Olo St.
Holy Family, 414 South Main St.
Tony Cesana, of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, with the microphone at right, tells parishioners from Sacred Heart and Holy Family that he’s eager to welcome them to the Park Square church during a contentious forum at the church last Friday. The Rev. Daniel Sweet, pictured at center, attempted to guide the conversation. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)
North Smithfield resident Mike Rapko, left, says church leaders should consider options other than consolidating three parishes at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. The Rev. Daniel Sweet listens at right.
Carlene Fontaine, youth leader for three Woonsocket churches, told attendees at last Friday’s forum that they need to embrace the youth of the church, or risk seeing more churches close.


The issue here is that you are expecting Christians to act like Christians. Oh wait, they are...

Seriously, The Catholic Church is in decline and that is truly sad. These are some beautiful pieces of architecture that don't have the parishioners to fill/support them any longer. That can be blamed on a long history of the Diocese being a dictatorship and not a partner in faith. That continues under our current bishop as well. Draconian rules abound still. No women, priests can't marry, etc. Worst of all (if you ignore the abuse cases), you base absolution on a cash payment. I believe I could be accepted back if I paid a large fee to annul my first marriage.

Ms. Fontaine is correct. The writing is on the wall. Adapt or watch the church slowly die through attrition. Do the math, these buildings are empty more than they are full.

Like my late Mom used to say. "Peace be with you. Now lets go kill each other as we see who can get out of the parking lot first!"

This appears to be such an unfortunate situation. While I am no longer a local parishioner I've attended masses in all three churches. I was baptized at Precious Blood and attended Holy Family School and it was my family's church. But just as St's Ann's, St. Louis and Our Lady of Victories merged years ago it is still an unfortunate situation. If you've been a Catholic in the Woonsocket area you've likely been to Mass in all of the churches. I hope that the community can come together to find the best situation possible.

I lived in Woonsocket for 35 years and as a Catholic, I went to all of these churches. I was married at Holy Family back in 1976. All three are beautiful churches in their own ways. One solution would be to start filling the churches instead of thinking about shrinking. One commenters view is that the church is Draconian. I believe the church should remain to what is true as Divine Revelation has given us. And if someone feels women priests or married priests will help, they need to do more study. Isn’t it strange how Catholic Churches in other parts ot the world are filling up. And in the US they are closing. People place more importance on other things instead of God. How about inviting your family and friends to one of these churches and spend time in Eucharistic Adoration. God bless you.

In response to a previous post, although I agree there are some problems with the Catholic leadership approach to leadership, but there is a deeper issue here. The very same problem of declining membership is befalling other "more liberal" protestant denominations. The underlying issue here is a crisis in the decline of faith and the need to worship God. Regarding these churches in Woonsocket, it is no longer practical to keep these places going. I challenge those who are decrying this decision to step up their own practice of the faith as well as their budget contributions to keep them going. The collection at both Sacred heart and holy Family is well under $2K a week, hardly enough to sustain them. Enough said. Sadly, it comes down to practical realities my friends!

Thanks to the Valley Breeze for giving us a rare insider look at an exceptional local example of the changing landscape of Catholicism today, and especially of the current practice of combining local parishes to save money. In my view, the access given to the reporter to cover this story was nothing short of remarkable. And the fact that a proposed change of this type was documented by the media at all (ncluding photographs), and documented at a time when parishioners were perhaps at their most vulnerable, expressing raw emotions and strong objections, makes the piece an even rarer one. Kudos to Ethan Shorey and Thomas Ward for their efforts. This article might well be an award winner!

The inevitable closing of Sacred Heart and Holy Family Churches brought back many wonderful memories from my youth. Raised in Fairmount I vividly recall attending Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart and attending grammar school at Holy Family. I will never forget the sermons of Fathers McKittchen and Driscoll, my mother with her Missal, Rosary, and head cover, and my father casting an occasional stern look at my brother and I when we fidgeted in the pew. I would be remiss not to mention the discipline instilled in me by the Jesus Mary nuns at Holy Family. Discipline that was instrumental in my succeeding in life ad raising two (2) fine boys. I recall four (4) Masses with ushers, standing room only. The parking lot at 3rd Ave. & Olo St. packed. All gone. Last year my mother passed away at 94 yrs of age. Her funeral Mass was at Sacred Heart. The memories that day helped with my grieving process. I feel for everyone affected by the inevitable closings. Father Sweet is in a tough position. I pray for God to give him strength. The current situation with church consolidation, and the shortage of priest is real. The Diocese is in a loose/loose situation here. Low attendance makes supporting a Parish almost impossible. This did not happen overnight. It has been happening right under our noses for a long time but we chose to ignore the signs. Church attendance is down across the nation. A recent poll showed that only 34 % of Catholics attend Mass regularly. During the 2008 & 2012 Presidential election 70 % of RI Catholics voted for Pro Choice candidates. What a shame. We have only ourselves to blame. Catholicism is mocked in the main stream media and Hollywood, the traditional family is now out of the mainstream, more families are run by single parents, and we wonder in amazement why attendance is down and churches are closing? Unless there is a sudden change in our culture (divine intervention?) we ain't seen nothing yet. I certainly hope that I am wrong. I am retired and live out of state. I visit Woonsocket two (2) times a year and make going to Fairmount a highlight of my visit. I miss Fairmount, I miss Woonsocket...and the Churches referenced in this email. I don't know all the facts of the proposed consolidation and if I offended anyone by speaking out of line I apologize. I pray that all three (3) churches survive and thrive.

Oscar Sevigny