SAINT PHILIPS PARISH
Pinpointing the beginning of Saint Philip Parish with any degree of certainty is somewhat difficult and arbitrary. Early records are few and obscure. We do know that the Catholic population of Smithfield, estimated at 350 as early as 1852, was centered in Greenville, a poor struggling mill village without a church. The “Pilot”, the Boston diocesan newspaper, references a letter written by a Greenville resident indicating that…”two or three hundred Catholics there were preparing to build a church so that they might secure the permanent presence of a priest.” Bishop Bernard O’Reilly of the Hartford diocese sent a Reverend Philip Gillick to minister to these souls and to found Saint Philip’s Parish in 1855. Three years later, on the 19th of September 1858, the first Catholic Church building in Smithfield was dedicated by the Right Reverend Francis P. McFarland, Bishop of Providence. At the time, the church, house and lot were estimated to be worth $3,200. They still stand today on Smith Avenue.
During the next twenty years, the number of Catholics in town continued to grow, spurred by the influx of French-Canadian immigrants. Church records in 1860 show sixteen Baptisms, nine marriages and $520 collected in “pew rents”. First names and other phrases appear in Latin, the language of the church at the time. For example, a recorded Baptism in Greenville on February 27, 1868 shows that a Reverend J. Quinn “baptisavi Josephum” (I baptized Joseph) Monahan, the son of James and Maria (Clarke) Monahan. This document is one of the earliest located.
However, a new trend developed in the early 1870’s – the concentration of Catholics began to shift away from Greenville to the more industrial Georgiaville-Esmond side of town. “Pew rents” had declined to $72 in 1872. Reverend Bernard Plunkett succeeded Father Gillick and established a Sunday school in Saint Philip’s with 130 children but most parishioners went to Saint Michael’s for Baptisms, Confirmations, etc. After twenty years as a parish, the pastor, Father William Wiseman, moved his residence to Georgiaville and Saint Philip’s reverted to the status of a “mission” of Saint Michael’s. The year was 1875, a new church building had been built in Georgiaville and for the next sixty-seven years priests from Saint Michael’s attended to the spiritual needs of the souls in Greenville.
THE LITTLE CHURCH - THE MISSION YEARS
Information and records on activities of the mission church during the early part of this century are scarce. The Pastor would travel the five miles by horse and carriage over country roads to celebrate the single Mass in Saint Philip’s at 9:30 every Sunday morning followed by religious classes for the children. The Gospel was read in both French and English; sometimes, too, the homily. Attendance numbered about 309 in 1911. The pastor, Reverend William J. Nagle undertook a renovation of the church and new Stations of the Cross were blessed just before Thanksgiving. The Little Church on Smith Avenue had neither electricity nor plumbing and heat was provided through grates in the floor by a wood-burning basement furnace. There were two side aisles but no middle aisle. The organ in the loft was hand pumped and it was considered an honor to be selected for the chore. Sunday Mass was attended by no more than twenty-five or thirty people, many of whom parked their horse and buggy in the shed attached to the rear of the church. With its extensive geographical boundaries, Saint Philip’s served not only as the religious core of the community but as its social center as well. Harvest suppers, clambakes and church-sponsored square dances became village activities joined by all denominations.
A Census Report made to the Bishop by the Pastor, Reverend John A. Toohey, on December 15, 1928, counted 66 families totaling 275 people in Saint Philip’s but attendance at Sunday Mass averaged only 165. By 1936, the number of Catholics in the mission fell to about 270, more than one-third of them children. As the thirties became the forties, the Reverends Peter Paul Hussey and Daniel Ryan traveled from Saint Michael’s to tend to the spiritual needs of the mission faithful. The migration to the suburbs was just a trickle in the years leading up to World War II but enough foresight prevailed to reach both a conclusion and a milestone in the history of Saint Philip’s.
THE LITTLE CHURCH - THE SUMMER OF '42
According to the 1940 Census, there were an estimated 4,611 people living in Smithfield, an area of 54 square miles on which there stood 1,334 dwellings, both occupied and vacant. The real estate tax was $2.22 per $100 of valuation and it dropped below $2.00 during the next two years. America’s entrance into World War II siphoned off millions of young men and women to fight in Europe, Africa and the Pacific and Smithfield contributed its share. However, in the late summer of ’42, Catholics in Greenville and neighboring communities shared some good news in the midst of the gloom of war.
The Thursday, September 17, 1942 issue of “The Providence Visitor” headlined a front page story announcing that the “present mission in Greenville of Saint Michael’s, Georgiaville is erected to the status of a parish under the title of Saint Philip’s Church.” The parish is to include Greenville, Harmony, Spragueville and Glocester and the Reverend Charles J. O’Neill will reside at the Rhode Island Catholic Orphanage Asylum (Saint Aloysius) on Austin Avenue, a mile from the little church on Smith Avenue. Two other missions—Saint Luke, West Barrington and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Crompton (West Warwick)—were also “erected to parish status” on the same day.
The good news about Saint Philip’s paled, however, to other events of the day locally, nationally and around the world and received nary a mention in the secular press. The Battle Lenningrad was raging during that late summer. U. S. Navy submarines sank four Japanese ships on September 17, bringing the enemy total to 362 vessels. A joint Army-Navy force assaulted the Aleutian Islands and the War Department announced the loss of the carrier Yorktown in early June at the decisive Battle of Midway. Locally, some 3,000 Navy mothers were honored in ceremonies that attracted 37,000 people to Roger Williams Park, Providence during which another 63 young men took the oath of enlistment. The Office of Price (OPA) fixed the maximum room temperature at 65 degrees beginning in October for some 85,000 Rhode Island homes in order to conserve oil. Rhode Island residents returning to college at both R.I.C.E. (now RIC) and Rhode Island State College (now URI) could continue to attend tuition-free. The price of the Providence Journal was 3¢, the 12-page Visitor was 5¢ and it cost 3¢ per ounce to mail a first-class letter.
THE GOLDEN YEARS: 1942-1992
There were about 250 families that constituted Saint Philip’s Parish in the Fall of 1942 and Father O’Neill singly tended to their spiritual needs in the Church on Smith Avenue. He was warmly received and was well-liked; the people were delighted to have their own parish and a full-time priest. Long-time parishioners recollect Father O’Neill walking the Greenville neighborhood, talking and listening to anyone and everyone. Parish records from these early days are factual, precise and impersonal. Little Marcia Ann Jacoy, the 19 day old bouncing baby daughter of Parkman and Margaret (McLaren) Jacoy of Harmony was baptized on September 27, the only one to receive the Sacrament that day. A week later, Michael Robert Nelson, son of Charles C. and Bertha (Castonguay) Nelson of Greenville, was the first boy to be welcomed into Catholicism.
Reverend Joseph Emrich of Saint Michael’s celebrated the first Nuptial Mass in the new parish, uniting Anthony Stone of Spragueville and Mary Fanning of Greenville on Wednesday, December 30. There were just three other couples married in the parish during the first year. Father O’Neil presided over the initial First Communion class on June 13, 1943 and established a summer school although Catechism classes continued to be held at 1:00 on Sunday afternoons. Almost a year later, on May 12, 1944, Bishop Keough came to Saint Philip’s to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to the first class of 58 – 37 boys and 21 girls. Alphabetically, Martin Austin and Carol Bixby processed first before the Bishop. In those days, the Confirmation class had just two sponsors – James Phillips for the boys and Mrs. Ida Payette for the girls. James Phillips and his brother John served as the first two Trustees to form the Parish Corporation along with Father O’Neill.
The pastor was also concerned about the civic and cultural well-being of the young people of the parish and he established the first Boy Scout troop which met at Saint Aloysius and Charlie Fogarty served as the first scoutmaster. The Legion of Mary was also established in the parish and its Monday evening meetings were a fixture for years.
In the early postwar years, the population of both the town and Saint Philip’s began to grow and the two significant events in parish history occurred within one day of each other. Bishop Keough appointed the Reverend Joseph P. McNamara, a former Army Chief of Chaplains who had served in the China-Burma-India Theater, attaining the rank of Colonel, as Pastor of Saint Philip’s on September 19, 1946 with residence at Saint Aloysius. Greenville transplants from the Olneyville area of Providence remembered him from his service at Saint Mary’s Broadway prior to the war. He brought with him the military bearing and disposition that had shaped his life for some five years. Many of his homilies concerned his experience in the Far East, along with a sense of pride and an unbounding energy that appeared in all aspects of his pastorate. The use of the French language at Mass soon disappeared.
The next day the “Latham property”, the large 18-acre parcel of land on which the Church, rectory, convent, school and Parish Center now stand, was deeded to the parish by Frank M. and Helen T. Kane. Nearly six years would pass, however, before the Sunday morning traffic on Smith Avenue would shift westerly onto Putnam Pike. During the immediate post-war years the stone wall parish hall next to the church, which had been built by parishioners in 1938, was the center of parish social activities – First Communion classes and Rosary and Altar Society Communion breakfasts, Boy Scouts and CYO meetings, card parties, Catholic Charity fund kickoffs and many other annual parish affairs.
THE SECOND SAINT PHILIP CHURCH: 1952-1988
The Parish Corporation met on Columbus Day, 1951, and voted to build a new church, the cost of which was not to exceed $150,000. Less than nine months later, on Sunday, July 20, 1952, Bishop Russell J. McVinney laid the cornerstone and dedicated the new below-ground structure before a crowd of 630 faithful. Also attending were Father O’Neill then Pastor of Saint Matthew’s Cranston, the Knights of Columbus, Smithfield town officials, nuns from Saint Peter School where parish children attended, and the Bishop’s brother, Raymond B. McVinney, a parishioner who served who served as master of ceremonies. Newspaper accounts of the day described in detail the seating capacity (630), the length, breadth and width of the new building and the novel “cry room”, the second church in the diocese with such a facility. Interestingly, it was pointed out at the time that the design of the building would allow for future upward expansion. Following Mass, everyone repaired to the Parish Hall on Smith Avenue for breakfast. Sentiment and history aside, the people were ready and willing to move into the new basement church.
The Latham Funeral Home, the only other building on the property, was acquired by the parish in the summer of 1955 and renovated for use as the rectory. Joining Father McNamara on June 21, 1955 was the first full-time assistant assigned to Saint Philip’s, Reverend Joseph P. Hynes. Reverend Rene Guertin, Chaplain at Saint Aloysius and teacher at LaSalle Academy, had been the “unofficial curate” assisting Father McNamara with parish work since 1947.
The needs of an ever increasing parish continued to be of prime concern and, on a chilly Sunday, December 6, 1959, earth was turned for a nine-room school and convert next to the church at a cost of $400,000. The complex was blessed and dedicated on January 15, 1961. Three days earlier the local paper, “The Observer” ran a photo spread that included the children in all four grades and the smiling Sisters of Mercy staff – Sisters Assunta, Fidelia, Gladys, Gracelle. Until then, the children of the parish had been blessed by having Saint Peter’s School at the Saint Aloysius available to offer Catholic education, tuition free. The history of Saint Philip would be incomplete were it not to include this invaluable Catholic resource.
The parish community also took time in January of that year to honor Rosella Lynch for her fifty years as church organist. She would continue for another ten years. She assumed her duties from Etta Keach and was, herself, replaced by Avis Phillips.
The Reverend Authur J. Geddes was appointed as the second assistant in the parish on August 27, 1963 and he immediately assumed the role of moderator of the Rosary and Altar Society, an extremely active organization that conducted fashion shows, bridge parties and other fund-raisers regularly, many of them held at the Anna McCabe School because of the space limitations of the parish hall.
Father Joseph P. McNamara was elevated to Monsignor and named Pastor Emeritus of Saint Philip’s in early February, 1971 after twenty-five years of priestly service in this corner of the vineyard. By then the parish had grown to more than 1,500 families some 4,000 souls. The Reverend Joseph N. Besse, named Pastor on February 18, 1971, presided over an ever-expanding flock, the establishment of an elected Parish Council and the construction of a modern Parish Center which was blessed and dedicated on October 22, 1978, seven weeks following the end of his Pastorate.
Bishop Louis Gelineau appointed the Reverend Raymond J. Rafferty to be the fourth Pastor of the modern-day Saint Philip’s Parish on September 1, 1978. Irish-born and ordained, Father Rafferty was serving as Pastor of Saint Mary’s, Carolina when he was called to Greenville. Under he pastoral guidance, Saint Philip’s was one of the first parishes in the Diocese to participate in the RENEW program, undertook an ambitious and visionary goal-setting effort, continued to be a pace-setter during the Annual Catholic Charity Fund Appeals and experienced an ever-lasting an every-increasing population which exceeded 2,000 families in the mid-1980’s.
THE THIRD SAINT PHILIP CHURCH: 1989-PRESENT
Confronted with the reality of a small and inadequate 35-year old basement church, a long-range projected increase in the population of Greenville and neighboring towns and a concomitant decrease in the number of diocesan priests, a decision was reached to build a new Saint Philip’s on the site of the old church which was scheduled for demolition. It was one of several architectural options presented to parishioners, another being the addition of a superstructure atop the existing church. A parish-wide church building fund campaign began in March, 1987 with a goal of $1.2 million to be pledged over a three-year span. The final Mass was celebrated in the old church on Easter Sunday, 1988. Liturgies were held in the Parish Center during the next sixteen months until September 10, 1989 when, before an overflowing assembly of the faithful, the Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell, Auxiliary Bishop of Providence, solemnly dedicated this new edifice to Almighty God, to Saint Philip and to the people, present and future.
And so it was done. The end result of much work and dedication by so many – their legacy as well as that of Father Rafferty. On January 25, 1991, he was named Pastor of Saint Paul Parish, Cranston, where he had served as an Assistant some twenty years earlier. The Reverend Gerald E. Beirne was sent to shepherd the flock on the same day.
SAINT PHILIP PARISH IN THE MILLENNIUM
The 21st century dawned on Saint Philip under the pastoral guidance of the Very Reverend Gerald E. Beirne who was approaching his ninth year as shepherd of an ever-growing flock assisted by associate pastors Reverend Robert Lacombe and Reverend Roland Simoneau.
One of the largest parishes in the Diocese, the parish population was drawn at 11,440 individuals constituted in 2,850 families in the Year September, 2000-August, 2001. There were six weekend Masses to serve their spiritual needs including a popular Sunday evening Teen Mass with accompanying music and readings. Three hundred two youngsters were enrolled in Saint Philip School, K-8, there were 114 Baptisms, 131 First Communions, 100 Confirmations, 35 Marriages and 74 Funerals.
An ambitious capital campaign fund-raising drive had kicked off in September, 1999 with a goal of $1.5 million to fund new construction and expansion of the parish school, then 41 years old, under the leadership of Principal Mrs. Lillian McIntyre and the convent, no longer used for school activities, to accommodate the increasing number of parish ministries.
The dedication and blessing of the Mother Seton Education Wing and the major improvements to the school was culminated on Sunday, November 4, 2001 with the Most Reverend Robert E. Mulvee, Bishop of Providence, presiding and assisted by Father Beirne and Associate Pastors, Reverend Robert Bailey and Reverend Michael Najim.
The event elevated the general mood of the people just seven weeks after the terrorist attacks on the country and the mournful days that followed, burying those lost in the tragedy and spontaneous outpouring of prayers throughout the nation.
Another milestone celebration, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Parish, was held in August, 2002, capped by a dinner-dance at the Kirkbrae Country Club where parishioners were reunited with many of the priests who had toiled in this corner of the vineyard – former Pastors Reverend Raymond Rafferty and Reverend Joseph Besse, Reverend Lawrence Toole, Reverend Charles Quinn, Reverend Norman Bourdon and Reverend Henry Zinno.
Improvements during the decade included the construction of the Saint Vincent DePaul outbuilding, the renovation of the Rectory that provided enlarged office space for the daily business of the parish, improvements and additions to the middle school computer class and library, the addition of a playground and garden and the upgrading of the 30-year old Parish Center kitchen.
The Rhode Island Blood Center continued to target Saint Philip’s Parish as one of the major blood donor resources and the people always responded. Three drives or more every year resulted in over 100 donations at each. Donors were provided refreshments and dinner by the parish’s small dedicated Men’s Club led by Vin Mattera, Ray Reilly, Jack Clossick, Ken McKay and Gil Bashaw.
The annual parish flea market/yard sale held in July draws large weekend crowds and consistently raises upwards of $10,000 to benefit the parish choir and other major and minor expenses. These successful efforts have been faithfully coordinated by long-time Director of Sacred Music and skilled organist Ken Camara and a well-orchestrated staff of volunteers that included teens preparing for Confirmation, altar servers and other volunteers.
The people of Saint Philip have a history of financial and spiritual support for every temporal cause, a family in need, a youngster with several medical problems, elderly needing companionship, transportation, indeed a place to live. Fund raisers have packed the Parish Center. Over $30,000 has been raised for these worthwhile causes with little or none going to expenses, etc.
Saint Philip is one of several parishes in the Diocese that has committed to Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Inaugurated in the fall of 1995, parishioners come to Our Lady’s Chapel to “spend one hour with Jesus Christ”, some even more; a quiet time with their Lord and Savior, just fifty feet or so from the hustle and bustle of the secular world out on Putnam Pike.
Change is inevitable and Saint Philip was no exception during the years of the first decade.
“Father Gerry” celebrated his 70th birthday and 45th year of priestly service to Almighty God and the people of Saint Philip in 2007 and retired. His final Mass was on Sunday, February 12, 2007 and the flock honored and bade him farewell at a dinner at the Quidnesset Country Club in April that packed the facility with more than 500 well-wishers.
By that time his faithful assistants had moved on to better serve the Diocese. Reverend Robert Bailey was appointed Pastor of Saint Maria Goretti Parish, Pawtucket. Father B had served as Chaplain of the Smithfield Fire Department during his time here and, upon transfer, he was prayerfully glad to leave behind his canine mascot, a figurine of a Dalmatian that had been purloined from the front of the department headquarters in Greenville but soon returned when the culprit realized the dastardly nature of the act.
Reverend Michael Najim was summoned by the Bishop to the position of Director of Vocations with residence at Saint Vincent DePaul in Providence in 2004. Reverend Michael Colello and Reverend Peter John Sheehan were soon sent to Saint Philip. A former United States Marine, Father Sheehan had been assigned here as a seminarian and, after ordination, served in Woonsocket. Attendees at his Masses will fondly remember his military “parade rest” stance while celebrating. Ironically, both prided themselves on physical fitness and were daily joggers around Greenville. Both injured themselves during those exercises. Also in priestly service to Saint Philip were Reverend Varghese, subsequently appointed Pastor of Saint Eugene Parish in Chepachet replacing Father Charles Quinn who had served here in the 1970’s, and Reverend Edward Sousa.
Most Reverend Monsignor Robert Evans was tabbed by Bishop Thomas Tobin to become the sixth Pastor of Saint Philip in the modern age and he was installed on Sunday, February 18, 2007.
Over the period September, 2000 to September, 2008 the Parish had grown incrementally to nearly 3,000 families that included 10,175 souls. There were 284 students in the parish school and over 950 in the large religious education program (CCD) directed by Dr. Maryanne Jasinski. Oddly, Baptisms dropped by half to 57 and marriages and funerals were also fewer. By the end of the fiscal year in June, 2009 the parish had no debt and the church was cleaned, painted and power-washed in time for its 20th birthday.
The Rev. Mr. Carlo Sabetti, the senior of Saint Philip’s two permanent deacons along with Rev. Mr. Harris Gederman, was appointed by Monsignor Evans to the newly-created position of Parish Manager in September, 2007. In the unpaid post, Deacon Sabetti oversees the parish’s lay personnel, physical plant and equipment and tends to the wide-ranging temporal needs of the people.
The year 2009 marked some milestones. September was the 20th anniversary of the “new” Saint Philip Church. By “popular demand” the Saturday 5:00 p.m. Mass was pushed up to 4 p.m. for reasons of energy conservation. More than 11,000 souls were regularly attending the Masses and liturgies, over 1,000 young people were in faithful attendance at religious education programs, Father Bailey’s Dalmatian was still in place at the Greenville Fire Station and a first-ever event entered the permanent historical record of the Parish.
On Tuesday, December 15, 2009 Very Reverend Monsignor Evans was incardinated to the position of Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Providence by His Excellency Bishop Thomas Tobin. The newly-minted Bishop continued in residence at Saint Philip, a first-ever event, until June of 2010.
The Reverend Francis Santilli was appointed the seventh Pastor of Saint Philip Parish effective July 1, 2010 with Reverend Jeremy Rodrigues and Reverend Juniper Sistare assisting him and us. On July 1, 2012, Reverend Albert P. Marcello, III and Reverend George K. Nixon became the newly appointed assistants of Saint Philip Parish.
The past is rich with the contributions of those who preceded us and created this parish in the image and likeness of Almighty God and we Poor Children of Eve. The future holds the unknown but under Divine guidance, it is our legacy and those who follow us. What will we leave to the future faithful? In the divine scheme of things we are leaving our footprint for those who will come after us. Pray that Saint Philip Parish remains vibrant, glorious and holy.
Peter J. Connell
Effective, July 1, 2012, the Bishop assigned Rev. Albert P. Marcello III and Rev. George K. Nixon to priestly service at Saint Philip Parish replacing Rev. Brian Sistare who was appointed Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Woonsocket, and Rev. Jeremy Rodrigues was appointed to the position of Director of Office of Divine Worship. Rev. Albert P. Marcello III was appointed to Chaplain at Rhode Island Hospital effective July 1, 2014 with no priest assigned as a replacement.
Diane Cassidy -Web Master/Bulletin Editor