The Venerable History of
St. Mary’s Church
West Warwick, Rhode Island
(Originally Established as the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel)
The Oldest Operating Roman Catholic Church
The Diocese of Providence
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 of 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.
Father John Corry baptized a child in Warwick, RI in 1839. In the early 1840’s, Father James Fitton, who succeeded Father Corry as Pastor of Providence and its missions, celebrated Mass in the home of Michael Carroll on Birch Hill, the area west of Clyde. Through the efforts of one of their number, Mary Doran, the wife of an English calico printer, the thirty families, which comprised the early Catholic Community in the valley, were able to obtain an acre of land on the hill overlooking Crompton.
On September 23, 1844, Mary Doran was accorded the honor of breaking ground for the small church that the community would build. Father Fitton celebrated the first Mass in the thirty-by-fifty wood frame building on January 19, 1845. Bishop William Tyler, Bishop of Hartford, dedicated the hillside church under the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel on July 20, 1845. Also, St. Mary’s Cemetery, which continues to function to this day, was established in 1845.
With the opening of the church, four young priests from Providence took charge of the mission for about a year, celebrating Mass on a regular basis. In December 1850, Bishop Tyler appointed Father Daniel Kelly, a young Irish priest, pastor of St. Mary’s; the name by which it was most commonly known. Father Kelly was given another assignment in August of 1851. At that time, the Bishop assigned Father James Peckham Gibson, Boston-born and a convert to the Roman Catholic Faith, as the church’s second pastor. Father Gibson had served the mission church for about a year, 1848-1849. Now he would begin a pastorate that would span forty years.
Among his initial tasks was the building of a rectory beside the church. He would later construct a small schoolhouse. When railroad construction and the potato famine in Ireland swelled the Catholic population of the Valley during the 1850’s, Father Gibson, in 1856, 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. Father Gibbons died on January 3, 1892 and was buried in the cemetery, overlooking the church.
Father James J. Brady, a native of County Cavan, Ireland, succeeded Father Gibson. He built a new rectory near to St. James Church and later a parish school. During his years as Pastor and through those of his successors: Fathers William S. Flynn, Edward A. Higney, Jeremish O’Meara, William J. Keefe and John P. Reardon, the priests who served St. Mary’s, Crompton, lived in Arctic and offered a single Mass in Crompton each Sunday.
In the early morning of August 6, 1926, fire destroyed the roof of the old church in Crompton, sparing the walls and belfry. Father Keefe, who was Pastor at the time, considered tearing down what remained of the church to build a new one. In the final analysis, however, he decided to repair the structure. The church was reopened on Easter Sunday, April 17. 1927.
In September of 1942, Bishop Francis P. Keough appointed Father Barton J. Daggett, a convert to the Faith. There were, at the time, ninety-five families which comprised the parish. After Father Daggett’s death on December 1, 1947, Father Louis Dunn served as temporary administrator until Bishop Keough appointed Father Joseph M. Degnan as Pastor, January 1948. Shortly after Father Degnan assumed the pastorate, the parish cemetery was enlarged by a purchase of land from the McKenna Family. During the post war years, West Warwick’s population grew slowly but steadily as did the number of families at St. Mary’s.
Father Degnan laid the groundwork for the establishment of St. Mary’s School. With the transfer of Father Degnan, Father Augustine F. Burns opened the school in 1959, which was staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. In 1970, due to rising costs and a shrinking enrollment, Father Burns closed the school in 1970. It was Father Burns responsibility to implement the many liturgical changes, which came about with the advent of the Second Vatican Council. Father Burns retired in 1971.
Father Burns was succeeded by Father William F.X. Harrington. Becauseof the need for more repairs to the church due primarily to condensation, the debate ensued as to whether or not a new church should be constructed. The issue of a new church was still unresolved, when Father Harrington retired, for reasons of poor health, in late 1976.
For a few weeks, following Father’s retirement, Father Richard D. Sheahan served as administrator. In March of 1977, Father James H. Duhaime was appointed Pastor. He formed a committee to investigate the condition and future of the church structure. It was decided to renovate and reconfigure the church structure. In 1978, a fund raising campaign was initiated. Easter Week, 1980, the old church was moved off its foundation. The church received a face lift and a parish hall was constructed. Bishop Louis E. Gelineau, who was the Bishop of Providence at the time, rededicated the church on Sunday, January 25, 1981.
Because of Father Duhaime’s failing health, Father Edmund H. Fitzgerald assumed the reins of St. Mary’s Church as its new Pastor. During his years as Pastor, Father Fitzgerald focused on the historic character of the church and the spiritual legacy unique to St. Mary’s. When Father was transferred to St. Clare’s Church, Misquamicut, RI; Father Paul F. Reynolds, who was, at the time, Assistant Pastor of St. Martha’s Church, East Providence, RI, was assigned the new Pastor of St. Mary’s in 1992.
Under Father Reynolds’ tutelage, the parish spiritually and pastorally flourished. Father worked closely with his parishioners. The focus of his life was service to the people of the parish. He was always available to his parishioners. Father Reynolds was also Chaplain to the Mary Doran Council Knights of Columbus, which gathered for meetings at St. Mary’s Church Hall. Father’s work was of such an exemplary nature, that he was awarded the Bishop Gelineau Award for his many achievements. He continues as Chaplain to this day.
With Father Reynolds’ retirement, in 2008 Father Chinnaiah Yerrnini, from India, succeeded as Pastor. One of Father’s important achievements was the embellishment of St. Mary’s Religious Education Program. With a desire to minister to the sick, Father was appointed Chaplain at Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, RI.
In July of 2009, Fr. Thomas D. O’Neill was appointed St. Mary’s new Pastor. Father administered the parish, with a particular love for the shut-ins and ill of the church. His concern for creation and the ecological challenges facing our world were many times topics of his homilies. Father O’Neill retired on July 1, 2012.
At that time, Father Douglas J. Spina was appointed Pastor of St. Mary’s Church. Since his arrival, Father’s ministry has embraced the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral renewal of the church. The religious education and administrative challenges are also priorities for the new Pastor. Guided by the Holy Spirit, he is confident that the future of St. Mary’s will be as rich as its past. With a particular devotion to Mary, our Blessed Mother, Father strove to serve God’s People, who continued to grow under Her guidance. Father Doug retired July 1, 2019.
Upon Fr. Spina’s retirement, Father Nicholas T. Fleming was appointed pastor of St. Mary Church. Fr. Nicholas Fleming, entered the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence and attended Providence College, where he earned a degree in Philosophy in 2011. He completed his seminary studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, where he earned a degree in theology from the Angelicum University and was ordained a priest on June 27th, 2015. Following ordination, Fr. Fleming completed a license in Marriage and the Family at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. Effective July 1, St. Mary Church and SS John and James Parish merged. With Father Fleming at the helm, evangelization is the priority as new pastor of both parishes.