Brothers of the Sacred Heart depart Earle Street residence

Brothers of the Sacred Heart depart Earle Street residence

Brother Irenée Chabot offers a bag of sandwiches and cookies to a visitor at the door of the brothers’ Earle Street home.

WOONSOCKET – For nearly 50 years, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart have maintained a small but tight-knit community in a home on Earle Street that’s served as a resource for both city residents and those who visit to pursue a religious calling.

Now, the brothers are relocating their ministry to Maspeth, N.Y, in the face of changes that have affected their larger community.

“Woonsocket’s been a great place, I’ve enjoyed living here. It’s just that it’s not as suitable as other locations that we have,” explained Brother Xavier Werneth, director of the local Formation Center.

The reason for the change, he said, is one that has affected many religious communities nationwide: a decrease in the number of young men called to ministry and changes in their geographic location. With novices spread thin across the northeast, members of the Earle Street Formation Center had to travel several times a month to meet up with other novices for community-wide formation programs.

“Every other week, we were driving into New York or Connecticut and sometimes even Pennsylvania,” said Werneth.

Founded in 1971, the residence was once a house of formation for young men considering a calling to the religious life. In recent years, it’s served as the Formation Center for the community’s novices, though Werneth noted many of those novices now come from far away to complete the program. The center’s two most recent novices, he said, both traveled to the U.S. from the Philippines.

For the city’s most vulnerable residents, it’s also been a lifeline. For close to four decades, brothers living at the home have maintained a ministry of handing out bagged lunches to individuals who come to the door seeking food. During the pandemic, said Werneth, the home distributed about 120 lunches every weekend, limiting their distribution to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the days when the New Beginnings soup kitchen on Rathbun Street is closed. The Sisters of Mercy living in Cumberland, he said, typically provide the sandwiches, while the local Elks Club has helped stock the ministry with cookies and peanut butter over the years.

Though the brothers expressed hope someone else in the city might pick up the practice when they’re gone, Werneth acknowledged it’s not an easy task.

“It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if there’s anyone to take that on. You’re looking at hours of work,” he said.

The departure of the brothers leaves another vacancy on a corner once bustling with religious activity. Earlier this year, nearby St. Charles Borromeo Church held its final regularly scheduled Mass amid a merger with All Saints Parish. Prior to moving to the Woonsocket residence, Werneth lived for 15 years in Baton Rouge, where he said the vibrant churches stood out in stark contrast to some of the dwindling parishes he sees locally.

“Every Sunday, there would be 10 or 12 baptisms. Here, they haven’t had a baptism in several years,” he said.

Before the brothers moved in, the Earle Street house was a convent for nuns who taught at St. Charles School.

While the Earle Street residence will soon be placed on the market, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart still have a significant presence in northern Rhode Island. In addition to Mount Saint Charles Academy, the brothers also run a center for retired brothers in Pascoag.

The Brothers of the Sacred Heart are leaving their residence at 159 Earle St. after nearly 50 years of ministry.