Friars To Leave Providence in 2012

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In the second of two major announcements given to the Catholics of Providence recently, pastor Steven Patti, OFM, told parishioners of St. Mary’s Church last week that Holy Name Province will withdraw from the parish next year.

Steve broke the news at the Oct. 30 weekend Masses that next summer the friars will return the pastoral care of St. Mary’s Church to the Diocese of Providence.

The withdrawal from St. Mary’s is tied to the Province’s decision to close the downtown St. Francis Chapel, founded by the friars in 1956, which is financially unstable. Although the friars have staffed St. Mary’s only since 2006, they have served the downtown chapel, in one location or another, for more than 50 years.

The Province’s decision comes after an in-depth review of finances, said Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM. “The increasing costs of the chapel and parish, coupled with decreasing donations, necessitate our withdrawal.”

Steve described the reasons for the withdrawal to parishioners by reading a letter.

“We want you to know that this decision was made only after serious consideration by the administration of Holy Name Province in consultation with Bishop Thomas Tobin,” he said. “Though the major factor in this decision was the high cost of maintaining the chapel, the declining number of friars in our Province also played a role.”

Strong Reactions 
“We know this is an extremely sad moment for you, and it is also sad for us,” said Steve to the parishioners. “We have a history in Providence that goes back to 1956.”

It was a “whirlwind week,” Steve said in the Nov. 6 parish bulletin, in which he described the mixture of emotions shown by the parishioners — anger, shock and sadness — “all of which were understandable given the suddenness of it all.”

He said he heard a variety of reactions at the Masses, during which Scott Brookbank, OFM, walked through the aisles with a microphone for parishioners to share comments and questions.

Steve said in an article in the Nov. 4 Rhode Island Catholic titled “End of an era: Franciscans to close chapel, leave parish,” that “we are simply not the Province we used to be” in terms of the number of friars available to serve in ministry.

As announced last month, the chapel was shutting its doors mainly because of finances. The recent audit “proved that St. Mary’s by itself is only a one-person parish; it will not support four friars,” Steve said in the bulletin. The parish comprises only 300 households.

Like many regions of New England, Providence does not have the number of Catholics that it once did, said historian and Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM. “New England has arguably experienced the nation’s most difficult and drastic change of ecclesial landscape over recent years,” according to commentator Rocco Palmo in Whispers in the Loggia, whose prominent online blog covers Church news. “The area has endured the country’s most substantial plunge in terms of membership, a trend likewise apparent among other aspects of the region’s Catholic life.”

Supportive Words
At the Oct. 30 Masses, Steve expressed his appreciation to the congregation.

“We are grateful for the words of support from many of you,” Steve said to the parishioners. “You have shared your experiences, going back many years, of coming to the chapel and, more recently, of worshipping with us at St. Mary’s. Our friars, too, speak fondly of their time in Providence.”

“The final Masses will be bittersweet for you and for us,” Steve said. “A person who has attended the chapel for many years wrote the following, which we believe says all we could hope for: “As your friars begin a new journey with others, we will keep our Franciscan hearts here in Providence, and still welcome the strangers among us, and be servant leaders to all in need of kindness and mercy. Beautiful — and thank you.”

Many parishioners have spoken to the friars about “carrying on the Franciscan charism,” Steve said. “We are humbled by those words.”

“What came through to me in listening to so many of you speak last week was that St. Mary’s Parish, in the five years that the Franciscan friars have been here, has become a spiritual sanctuary for many disaffected Catholics,” Steve said in his Nov. 6 homily. “Many of you said that you have found a home here. Many of you said that you have felt welcomed here. Many of you travel a long way to get here. St. Mary’s has become a destination parish.” 

Closure and Continuity
The other Franciscan-based ministries in Providence will continue operation. The Poverello Center, which provides food and wellness programs to people in need, will remain open. Brice Leavins, OFM, will continue to operate the Bread and Blessings program, which provides a bagged lunch to more than 200 people three mornings a week in the parking lot of the Beneficent Church downtown, and to serve as administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish.

The last Masses at the chapel were celebrated on Monday. Now, the friars — Steve and Scott, along with Michael Joyce, OFM, and Charles O’Connor, OFM — will begin the process of preparing the chapel for closure when the lease expires at the end of December.

The Province will hold a farewell Mass at St. Mary’s before the June withdrawal. 

The St. Mary’s withdrawal is the third such transition announced in 2011 by the Province. Earlier this year, the Province withdrew from All Saints Parish in New York, and St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, N.J.

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