At 100-year celebration, St. Ann Center recalls church's past military connection

At 100-year celebration, St. Ann Center recalls church's past military connection

Wally Rathbun, left, chairman of the St. Ann Arts & Cultural Center board of directors, and Executive Director Dominique Doiron, stand among the many frescoes inside the former St. Ann Church on Cumberland Street, Woonsocket. The building, closed as a church by the Diocese of Providence in 2000, celebrates its 100th anniversary in May. (Valley Breeze photo by Tom Ward)

WOONSOCKET - On May 24, 1914, founders ceremoniously laid the cornerstone of what was to later become St. Ann Roman Catholic Church. By the time the enormous building was completed decades later, it would include seating for 1,500, more than 40 stained glass windows and what's believed to be the largest collection of fresco paintings in North America.

As the 100th anniversary of that historic day in Woonsocket approaches, the volunteer group that now operates and maintains the building as a nonprofit organization will look to the church's link to the community's veterans to celebrate.

"The church was built during World War I and the frescoes were painted during World War II," said Wally Rathbun, chairman of the facility's board of directors.

At the time, Rathbun said, joining the military was a common way for immigrants to gain citizenship, and families came in droves to working-class industrial cities like Woonsocket.

"With seven Masses every Sunday and, in its heyday, seating for 1,500, that's a lot of poor parishioners losing family members in war," said Rathbun.

Guido Nincheri, an artist contracted to paint the walls of the church in the style made famous by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael, acknowledged those military members in the final two, little-known frescoes he created at St. Ann: Army and Navy medallions depicting the horrors of war.

The paintings, which Rathbun describes as "very graphic for their time" portray a man with several gunshot wounds in the back, and several sailors drowning.

"No one ever really talked about them at the time because of separation of church and state," said Rathbun. "These medallions represent war."

When the Roman Catholic Diocese closed the Cumberland Street church in 2000, citing declining attendance and rising maintenance costs, former parishioners and art lovers stepped in to save the building, leasing it for years before officially obtaining ownership in 2007.

They renamed it St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center and have since protected what they describe as the city's "endangered and irreplaceable, artistic and historical asset," but it hasn't been easy. The frescoes are vulnerable to cracking and deterioration in cold temperatures, and heating alone for the building costs thousands each winter.

"The whole world always talks about the Sistine Chapel in Rome and our building is much larger than that, fresco-wise," explained Executive Director Dominique Doiron.

"Everything in that building costs money," said Rathbun. "Maintenance is a constant effort. It's like a child. That's how we look at it: we're all volunteers and we've adopted it."

For years, the center's primary source of funding was donations, and the board struggled to stay afloat financially,

"As Woonsocket has come up against financial problems, we know what that's like," said Rathbun. "A few years ago we were ready to close. We had no direction."

But Rathbun says that by tightening their belts and finding new sources of revenue, the center has largely changed its fortunes. The uniquely beautiful facility hosts several weddings each month, and receptions are held on site in a large finished basement below the church. Temperatures through the winter months are held at a brisk 45 degrees when the building is unoccupied: just enough to keep the paintings safe.

"We'll work in 45 degree weather," said Rathbun. "That has saved us."

Rathbun says he put oil in for every event at a cost of around $8,000 this past winter. Electricity bills ran around $1,800 a month.

But events, like the recent Buy Local Expo held at the center expose new visitors to St. Ann, and the facility's popularity as a tourist destination and a rental facility has continued to grow. This year, more than 20 volunteers have kept the center alive, with tasks from setting up for special events, to cleaning toilets.

"Being so busy the past couple of years, we've been able to save money," Rathbun said. "Wedding ceremonies are bringing us through, and raising funds has become a little easier for us."

The building's centennial celebration will acknowledge the center's past and future with a week of events leading up to May 24 that emphasize the church's importance in the community and military history. The center is seeking copies of photos and letters from veterans, both living and deceased. Submissions, which volunteers ask include the veteran's name and year of birth of death, will become property of the center and will be lined along the walls in a centennial display.

On May 17 and 18 the Cumberland-Lincoln Community Chorus will do two performances titled "War and Peace." The center will be open for self-guided tours for Woonsocket residents from May 19 through 23. And on the official May 24 anniversary, the Rhode Island Wind Ensemble will perform a Gala Concert dedicated to veterans.

The center will also host an instructional painting class on May 30 for anyone who would like the opportunity to learn to paint under the inspiring frescos, which were modeled after parishioners of the time.

"This celebration is important because over the last several decades, we've lost a lot of beautiful buildings in Woonsocket," said Doiron. "Saving this building was an important achievement in the city and even the state. This building was built by a community of people."

St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center is also seeking memorabilia including photos from events held at the Center for an exhibit titled "100 years of Memories."

Submissions, they hope, will go back as far as pictures of when the church was first constructed. Material should include names, dates and relevant information whenever possible and will also become property of the Center.

Items for both the veteran's memorial and 100 years of Memories should be mailed to St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center, PO Box 79, Woonsocket, RI 02895.

For more information about the 100th anniversary events visit the Center's website at .


What a great moment for Woonsocket!