Saying goodbye to a spiritual home

Saying goodbye to a spiritual home

Sacred Heart Church, located on Olo Street in Woonsocket, was founded in 1895 to serve the city’s Fairmount neighborhood. The church closed this week due to dwindling Mass attendance. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
After 123 years, Sacred Heart Church closes its doors

WOONSOCKET – One hundred twenty-three years is a long time for any building to serve the needs of a community of religious faithful, but for parishioners of Sacred Heart Church, who said a tearful goodbye to their beloved church during a final Mass on Sunday, it wasn’t long enough.

The church, which served several generations of Woonsocket Catholics since its founding in 1895, was one of three parishes selected by the Diocese of Providence to merge this month in response to dwindling Mass attendance. After a long and emotional parish consultation process, the Diocese announced in June that Sacred Heart Church would close and the parish merge into the newly named Holy Trinity Parish, based at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. Holy Family Church, meanwhile, would remain open as a satellite church of Holy Trinity Parish, with one Mass held on Saturday evenings.

On Sunday, parishioners recalled fond memories of their lives at the parish, even as they listened to the bells ring out over the church and the choir sing “O Sacred Heart, O Love Divine” for the final time. Pamela Saez, a 35-year-old parishioner whose family traces several generations at Sacred Heart, said her grandfather was married in the parish and her own childhood milestones often took place within Sacred Heart’s four walls.

“Me and my brother made our first Communion here in this church, and it’s a shame we have to let it go, but in the end, things happen for a reason,” she said.

The Rev. Daniel Sweet, pastor of the three churches and the new combined parish, addressed the parishioners’ pain during his remarks to those gathered on Sunday, though for some, words could do little to ease the ache of losing a building and community that had been for many years another home. As Sweet told those gathered prior to the start of the Mass, blame for the parish’s dwindling membership could not be placed on any of the parishioners before him, but could be traced to those who had been absent from the pews, a trend repeated in many parishes across the country.

“You are the faithful ones, you are the ones that have been going to Mass on Sunday. You don’t deserve to have anything taken from you,” he said. “The lack of faith in the world has taken this building from you.”

Sweet also noted the building, unlike the faith of parishioners, was not impervious to physical deterioration, a sticking point that had come up often during the merger process. Parishioners of Sacred Heart and Holy Family has asked diocesan officials to consider their church buildings as viable alternatives to establishing the combined parish at the newer Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, opened in 1953, but the diocese ultimately determined that despite recent upgrades, the cost of maintaining the two older churches was too much to use either building full-time.

“Buildings are not imperishable. Buildings fall down. Buildings are neglected,” Sweet said. “The human soul is far more beautiful than any place that can be formed by human hands.”

For many, the building on the corner of Second Avenue and Olo Street had long been a centerpiece of the Fairmount neighborhood it was founded to serve. Doris McKenna, a 40-year parishioner who now lives in a nursing home but returned to the church for Sunday’s final Mass, recalled joining the parish upon moving to Fairmount Street when her daughter was 6 months old.

“The thing I remember the best is they used to have a novena to the Sacred Heart every Monday,” she said.

Christine, her daughter, remembered growing up in a parish that had full pews every Sunday morning. While this week’s final Mass drew about 150 individuals, Christine said the number was not typical of attendance in recent years.

“It was very full, like today,” she recalled. “Not anymore, unfortunately, but it’s always been a family.”

Laurent Gendron, a parishioner of 45 years, has spent most of his life in the Fairmount neighborhood. As a child, he grew up across the street where the Kevin K. Coleman Elementary School now stands and later managed maintenance at Sacred Heart as parish sexton for 10 years. He recalled watching parishioners enter the church in the mornings from the window of his Olo Street home.

“There’s an expression it’s only a building. Not to me,” he said.

At 92, Gendron said he is disappointed to see his longtime parish close, especially given the financial investment of parishioners in the building in recent years, and does not plan to transfer to the new parish. He plans to attend Mass with his children at St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist Parishes, but will always consider Sacred Heart his spiritual home.

“I love this church. My heart is here, you know?” he said.

Lily Glaude says a prayer in front of the altar after the final Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Woonsocket last Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Bubble)