A HISTORY OF ST. JOSEPH’S CHURCH
The origins of St. Joseph’s Church can be traced to a mission station in Hope about the year 1902. Fr. Lebel, its administrator, conducted a census of Catholic families in the Town of Scituate and found in the villages of Ashland, Richmond, Rockland and Ponaganset 35 families which included 173 persons of French-Canadian descent.
On April 22, 1905, a delegation from Rockland went to Providence to ask Bishop Harkins if he would send a priest to celebrate mass for them on Easter. Three days later the same request was made by an Irish family in Clayville. Bishop Harkins not only sent a priest but also personally donated the necessary vestments and articles for the mass and, two months later, appointed Fr. Ethier to serve as administrator for the new mission station in Rockland. After a brief stay there, Fr. Ethier was replaced by Fr. Fournier and the name St. Alphonsus Mission was chosen. Plans for a chapel were discussed but no site was found.
In January, 1910, Fr. Fournier was replaced as administrator by Fr. Champagne who, in 1915, was given permission to offer mass in the village of North Scituate. Mass was first celebrated there in a house near the Horseshoe Dam. As the number of worshipers grew, a house on Main Street located two doors north of the present church was selected to serve as a chapel. At that time, about 30 people were attending mass. In the mid-thirties still more space was needed and a hall on Silk Lane was rented for the purpose.
Fr. Cassidy was the first to visualize a parish instead of a mission of the Cathedral. The present location was the desired site but this was land previously condemned for the reservoir. Consequently, permission was needed from the Town of Scituate, the City of Providence and the State. The Town and State were agreeable, but the City wanted more money. Finally, the land was purchases for $ 700.00.
Originally the parish included the whole Town of Foster, the Town of Scituate south to the Water Purification Plant and the Town of Johnston as far east as Atwood Avenue. (The original villages of Ashland, Richmond, Rockland and Ponaganset had been eliminated when they were inundated with water during the building of the Scituate Reservoir.)
To raise money to build the new church, a huge raffle was held at Chopmist Hill Inn. Large articles were offered and a goodly sum was raised. This and other efforts were rewarded by seeing the new church dedicated on Sunday, March 19, 1939 (St. Joseph’s Day, with Fr. Delaney as chaplain of the mission. The first administrator, Fr. Tally, arrived on October 12, 1939, and the first public mass was celebrated on October 15, 1939. On January 9, 1940, St. Joseph’s was formally incorporated as a parish with Fr. Tally as first pastor.
In those early years of the new church, carnivals were held in the parking lot or the church basement, depending on the weather. The annual Strawberry Festival in June was also held in the church basement, as were the Turkey Raffles and Summer School for the children. The Festival grew as the years went on so that later it had to be held in the Community House. Picnics were held at Oak Swamp at the home of Judge Dunn on Hartford Avenue.
Other pastors succeeded Fr. Tally as the years flew by: Fr. McManus, Fr. Archambault, Fr. Hughes, and in 1951, Fr. Feeney, for a reign of almost twenty years. Now there was a need for full-time assistants (then called curates). This was filled in turn by Fr. Battel, Fr. Donnelly, Fr. Laporte, Fr. Leckie, Fr. O’Neil and Fr. Rolando.
The rectory next to the church suffered a tragedy on March 1, 1963. On a very icy Friday night, a trailer truck loaded with fish crashed through the rectory walls, narrowly missing Father Feeney, who had just left the room it came into. His dry comment was that he had ordered fish, but not that much!
In August of 1963 a new parish was established in Johnston, St. Robert Bellarmine, which extended west to Belfield Drive. This eliminated the Belfield Drive to Atwood Avenue area of St. Joseph’s parish, which relieved crowded conditions in the church only slightly.
In 1971, Fr. Feeney retired and Fr. Raymond Dyer became pastor. Using funds that Fr. Feeney had saved over the years, plus a vigorous building campaign in 1972, Fr. Dyer proceeded to plan a new church which by now was desperately needed. The old rectory (with the big canvas-covered hole in its side) was torn down.
Fr. Paul Laporte, a curate at St Joseph, was engaged in establishing a new parish in Foster, named St. Paul the Apostle. That officially began on October 4, 1972, so from that time St. Joseph’s parish no longer included Foster.
During construction of the new church in Scituate, masses were held in the North Scituate Elementary School. Religious instructions were also held there as well as in the Brown Avenue School in Johnston and in the North Scituate Baptist Church hall – a most neighborly and appreciated help.
The new church was finished in 1973 and Fr. Dyer stayed on until February 1, 1976 until the arrival of Fr. Edward D. Johnson as pastor on March 5, 1976. Fr. Johnson resigned his active commission as a Navy Commander and reverted to inactive duty as a Navy Chaplain in order to return to the Diocese of Providence.
During Fr. Johnson’s pastorate the parish saw more signs of growth as the Religious Education Program developed. New families moved into the area and space was again at a premium. It was a time of spiritual growth as the parish got involved in the RENEW process as well as parish missions and retreats. Fr. Johnson sold some parish property and made changes in the parish offices.
In June of 1985, Fr. Johnson was moved by Bishop Gelineau to St. Anthony’s Parish in Portsmouth, RI. He was succeeded by Fr. Francis Keefe. Fr. Keefe brought his own flair to St. Joseph’s parish, not limited to “Christmas Angels”, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Novenas, and the puppet presentation at the Mass for children on Christmas Eve. During Fr. Keefe’s tenure St. Joseph’s welcomed several priests from India as weekend helpers, who were of great help to Fr. Keefe, especially during times of illness.
Fr. Keefe established a very strong Finance Council which guided the parish in being on a solid foundation in anticipation of the future needs of the parish.
In 2001 Fr. Keefe’s health lead to an early retirement. Msgr. Jacques Plante was named temporary administrator and in June of that year Bishop Mulvey appointed Fr. Roger Houle to be the new pastor at St. Joseph’s.
Fr. Houle continued the financial program already in place. A permanent deacon candidate was sent to St. Joseph’s to get some practical pastoral experience under the supervision of Fr. Houle. When he was ordained as a permanent deacon, Fr. Houle asked Bishop Mulvee to assign Rev. Mr. Paul Ullucci as a deacon assistant to St. Joseph. Over the years the diocese assigned seminarians from Poland who are studying to serve as priests in this diocese, to come to St. Joseph’s to acclimate themselves to the American culture and the pastoral life of a priest in the USA. Fr. Houle mentored them during their period of learning.
Throughout the years, especially under Frs. Keefe and Houle, the diocese has considered St. Joseph’s a very solid and vibrant community of faith in which to welcome others into the life of the Church in the Country.