Friars Bid Farewell to Rhode Island Parish

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With a crowd of faithful parishioners, the friars of Holy Name Province celebrated their final Mass at St. Mary Church last week, marking the conclusion of nearly six decades of ministry in this Rhode Island city. The farewell, made necessary by a financial shortfall, became a time of gratitude and memories for community members. The impact of the Franciscans, through their Masses at the parish and at St. Francis Chapel, which closed in the fall, was described in the media and by parishioners.

“They brought all the different groups together,” said Filomena Lupo, a long-time parishioner, in a Providence Journal article, “We’re all integrated now.”

Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, presided at the Feb. 19 Mass, joined by Provincial Council members Brian Belanger, OFM, and Thomas Conway, OFM, along with Howard O’Shea, OFM, and the three friars based at St. Mary’s — Scott Brookbank, OFM, Charles O’Connor, OFM, and pastor Steven Patti, OFM. The new administrator of St. Mary’s Parish, Msgr. Jacques Plante, was also present.

Celebration and Farewell
“It was a bright, sunny, brisk morning in Providence as the friars arrived at the church early to prepare for the 10 a.m. farewell Mass at St. Mary’s,” said Steven, pastor since last summer. “The church was more crowded than usual, as long-time parishioners of St. Mary’s, along with many who remembered the friars from their days at St. Francis Chapel, gathered together to fill the 143-year-old church,” said Steven.

Steve preached the homily, talking of the challenges of change, the commitment of the parishioners, and the history of the church. He reminded the congregation of the words he spoke last June at his first Mass at St. Mary’s: “Let us continue to listen for the Holy Spirit who moves among us always.”

“St. Mary’s Parish, in the time I have been here, has shown itself to be a parish that remembers its roots and knows its place as a landmark in the West End of Providence,” Steve said. “It has become, for many, a destination parish, a vital parish.”

John thanked the congregation and also spoke about the difficult decisions that he and other provincials need to make in light of the diminishing numbers of friars, said Steve. Afterward, John presented a San Damiano cross to Msgr. Plante, who had begun his service at the parish the previous week, and the parishioners gathered for a reception in the cafeteria.

Some parishioners “wiped away tears, others offered a hug aor a handshake to the friars,” according to a story in the Feb. 23 issue of Rhode Island Catholic.

Calling the farewell Mass bittersweet, John said that “all things considered,” the transition went very well. “But it was not easy saying farewell to people after 55 years of a significant friar presence in the city. When I read the headlines announcing our withdrawal on the front page of the major Providence newspaper, I was reminded again how cherished the friars are by the people of Providence.”

A recent article in The Providence Sunday Journal described the impact of the Franciscans, what their presence has meant to Providence, and how their welcoming spirit helped increase Mass attendance.

In the article, titled “Franciscan Friars Leave Rhode Island,” that appeared Feb. 12, Lupo was quoted as saying that, “before Bishop Tobin invited the Franciscans to assume leadership of the parish six years ago, she feared the parish would close.”

Appreciation for Franciscans
“There were barely 50 people attending weekend Mass,” she said, “compared with the 350 people found in the pews now.” She said she’s “confident that the parish will remain alive because of the groundwork the friars have laid.”

“What the Franciscans have done is bring together a wonderfully diverse community, committed to action,” Msgr. Plante was quoted as saying in the article.

Since October, when the announcement of the Province’s withdrawal was made, Steve said that “many people have come up to us and thanked the friars for their ministry in Providence over the last 56 years. We found some old black and white photographs from the 1950s of Paul Power, OFM, and Timothy Judson, OFM, at the old chapel on Page Street.” St. Francis Chapel had three locations since its founding in 1956; the second was on Weybosset Street, and, most recently, on Westminster Street.

“There has been a lot of coverage by television, radio, newspapers and we have seen that the Franciscan presence here has meant a lot to a great many people. A letter from a retired diocesan priest serves as a real tribute to the nearly 200 friars who have served in Providence through the years.”

“In the middle of everything that has been going on here in Providence — closing of the downtown chapel, withdrawal from a parish, and closing down of a food pantry — there have been moments of grace,” Steve said. “When we announced the closing of St. Francis Chapel last November, I received a letter in the mail from a retired priest of the diocese of Providence. He wrote of his sadness at the closing of the chapel, and about his experience of arriving in Rhode Island as a newly ordained priest in August 1965, ‘fresh from the oils of ordination at All Hallows College in Dublin.’”

Though the Poverello Center, which provided a food pantry and wellness center since 2006, closed on Feb. 23, Brice Leavins, OFM, will continue to run the Bread and Blessings sandwich program at Beneficient Congregational Church at 300 Weybosset Street, in the downtown section of the city. The Diocese of Providence is considering reopening the Poverello Center with slightly different services, said John O’Connor, OFM.

John said: “My thanks go to friars Steve, Charlie and Scott for helping to make the transition as smooth as possible. My thanks also go to Brian and Tom from the Provincial Council for joining us at the final liturgy.”

As people speak of their reactions, a St. Mary’s staff member said “she is not worried because anything new can be an opportunity,” according to the Providence Journal story. “Things change in life and we go on,” said Diane DiSanto. “The future is not dependent on any one person but rests on the community. That’s why the parish is so strong. We have become a very collaborative group.”

The article, which shows photos of Charles, Scott and Steve, ended with this question: “Are we going to carry on the tradition of hospitality, carry on the Franciscan spirit without the men in the brown robes standing in the back of the church, greeting everyone by name, encouraging us? That’s our challenge.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: The photo above, showing Charles O’Connor and parishoners, appeared with the Feb. 12 Providence Sunday Journal story. Additional photos of the farewell Mass can be viewed on Facebook.