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'Miracle on Church Street'

May 30, 2014

“It’s a miracle it still stands,” said St. Mary’s Church pastor Father Douglas Spina.

He said after 170 years of serving the community, the community has served “the little white church around the corner” with all the love and pride they have.

“It’s a living testimony to a time past,” he said.
Spina explained that the church was established in 1844. Prior to that, there was no cathedral in Providence and no Catholic church in the area. Therefore, people had to travel to Hartford, Connecticut where there was an archbishop.

The church, located at 70 Church St., was established as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel because that’s what Mary is officially called. It is the oldest operating church in the Diocese of Providence.

He said in the early 1830’s, the prosperity of the textile industry in the Pawtuxet Valley and the industry’s need for skilled labor attracted English and Irish workers to the mill villages in the Crompton and Clyde districts of West Warwick, RI.

By the late 1830’s, Catholic immigrants in the Pawtuxet Valley comprised the third largest Catholic Community in the Providence area after Providence itself and Pawtucket.

There were mission churches located in Pawtucket, Providence and Newport. Mission churches had no permanent pastor and were under the control of the archbishop of Hartford.

“The priest from Hartford would send a letter letting everyone know when he would be around and that’s when he would do all the baptisms, weddings, serve masses, etc.,” Spina said.

Eventually, pastors were appointed and the bishop assigned Father James Peckham Gibson as the church’s second pastor.
Gibson had served the mission church for about a year, 1848-1849. He served St. Mary’s Church as pastorate for forty years.

In 1856, he oversaw the enlargement of the church by the addition of transepts. In 1859, the construction of a belfry was completed.
In addition to a number of other projects, he also assisted in 1891 in the establishment of the Church of St. James, in the Arctic section of the town.

Gibson died on January 3, 1892 and was buried in the cemetery, overlooking the church.

“People love this church and they’re very dedicated to putting that love into the church and each other,” Spina said.
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