September 2, 2014
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Apponaug’s churches foster a spirit of community
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

In addition to Warwick Central Baptist Church and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Apponaug also has a Catholic church in the immediate vicinity on Post Road and the Apponaug Pentacostal Church at the corner of Oak and Prospect Streets. As St. Barnabas’ Rector Emeritus, the Reverend Howard C. Olsen has indicated the churches and the community have worked together in many areas.

While many of the projects of church and community deal with helping people in need in a variety of ways, there are also some physical changes that have benefited the old village. One of the most recent projects undertaken by St. Barnabas Church and the community has been the creation of Apponaug City Park. Thanks to the efforts of Father Olsen and the late Dorothy Mayor, an abandoned gas station, which had become an eyesore in Apponaug, was donated by the Sun Oil Company. The gas station has been removed and one of Apponaug’s liabilities has become an asset.

With three churches in the vicinity, the park is a natural spot for wedding pictures as well as a pleasant place to sit and relax. Through a diligent and determined effort, the old watering trough used by horses at Apponaug Four Corners in the 19th century has found a home in the park.

For a number of years in the mid-20th century, the concept of having wedding pictures taken in Apponaug would have been greeted with derision as the area had lost much of its charm through neglect and a lack of enthusiasm. One historian from West Warwick, in praising the renaissance that has taken place in Apponaug, noted that, at one time, residents of Arctic felt ashamed of the deterioration that had befallen that village. “But,” she noted, “we always said that at least we were not as bad as Apponaug. Now, we look to Apponaug for inspiration for what can be done.” She went on to say that Dorothy Mayor, with her determination, has given inspiration to community groups throughout the area.

The changes in Apponaug today stem from the work of people like Mayor, the members of the Apponaug Improvement Association, a sympathetic city administration and the churches.

Once the efforts of Apponaug activists such as Mayor and Father Olsen took hold, the pride in the community grew. The beautiful restoration of City Hall, the tremendous work done in preserving and enhancing the 19th century houses along Post Road, the city project at the library and the municipal parking lot have done a great deal toward attracting new business ventures to Apponaug and have created a desire for more of the same. The small attractive park between the library and the Kentish artillery (Warwick Museum) contains two monuments. One erected in 1990 is dedicated to the memory of the Apponaug Volunteer Fire Department, which protected the village from 1872 until 1972. A most recent monument at this small park is dedicated to the 3rd R.I. Heavy Artillery Regiment, which served with distinction during the Civil War.

The churches especially have given the village a definite heritage, as they are visible monuments to the people who lived and worked in Apponaug. In addition to continuing the concept of religious freedom upon which Rhode Island was founded, the churches also reflect the ethnic backgrounds and the moral fiber of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Throughout Warwick’s rapid growth and change, St. Barnabas Church, Warwick Central Baptist Church and St. Catharine’s Catholic Church have been a positive and dynamic force in the community.

While Warwick Central Baptist Church depicts the struggle of the Baptist community in the early 19th century and St. Barnabas Church the late 19th century movement, St. Catharine’s gives the community a sense of the struggle of the immigrants who came to work in Warwick. They came with different standards and religious beliefs and at times met with severe prejudice and economic difficulties. The struggle to claim their place in Rhode Island can be seen in the fight to worship in their own fashion in a church they could call their own.

Much of the history of Apponaug from the building of the railroad, the rise of the textile industry and the political life of the community can be seen through the history of St. Catharine’s parish. Today, the problems and prejudices that once divided the community have given way to a new spirit of cooperation.

In the 1830s, at about the same time that the Reverend Benjamin Phelon began preaching in Warwick Central Baptist Church, Stonington Railroad was being built and large numbers of Irish Catholics were hired to do the work. These laborers were encamped at Sweet’s Meadow, near the present day railroad bridge in Apponaug. Archeologist William S. Fowler, in his report on Sweet-Meadow Brook, tells us that the Stonington Railroad, completed in 1837, was under construction for “several years prior to this...by hand-shovel and wheelbarrow labor, and it is likely that the terrace site beside fresh spring water would have been as attractive then for a camp as in earlier days” when the Indians were there.

Fragments of a clay pipe, a copper Roman Catholic religious medal dated 1830, an iron spoon, a handmade copper wire door hook, hand-wrought nails and other materials that probably came from the railroad gang have been found. This has led Fowler to conclude that “the workmen may have lived in huts; kept a few chickens; and worked small garden patches to help provide them with food.”

Upon completion of the project, many elected to remain in Warwick to work at the mills that were beginning to flourish here.

During the very early period there were no Catholic Churches in the vicinity and many of the workers in Apponaug and other Warwick villages walked 10 miles to Providence for Sunday Mass, often carrying their children. Michael Carroll, an Irish mill worker in Clyde, then a part of Warwick, asked that the bishop send a priest to Pawtuxet Valley. Carroll’s request was honored and the Reverend James Fitton was allowed to celebrate Mass in Carroll’s home in Clyde.

The Rev. Fitton covered a very large territory, which included Connecticut, part of southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In the early 19th century, priests such as Fitton were still referred to as “Mister” and traveled on horseback. There was very little control over their movements and itinerary. They often preached where and when they pleased and could not be depended upon on a regular basis. On more than one occasion, Irish Catholics from all the villages met at Mike Carroll’s house only to find Father Fitton couldn’t fulfill his commitment. Many of the Irish concluded that if there were a church established, a regular priest might be assigned to the area. This was, however, at the period when the “Know-Nothing” Movement was very strong and was violently anti-Catholic. Bigotry ran rampant, and it was impossible for Catholics to purchase land in Apponaug or other sections in Warwick.

Eventually, Paul and Mary Doran, English Catholics, were able to purchase land in Crompton, one of the villages of western Warwick, and in 1844 St. Mary’s Church was built. This old wooden church still stands today. It is the oldest wooden Catholic Church in Rhode Island. The anti-Catholic, anti-Irish feelings were so strong at the time that there was a constant threat against the church and its parishioners. It was not until many years later that the number of immigrants was so large that the church was able to function as it should.

For a while, the influx of the French Canadians saw some turmoil in the western Warwick area. The newcomers spoke little or no English and, eventually, separate masses were held for the Irish parishioners in the morning and for the French in the afternoon.

Any hope for a Catholic Church in Apponaug, however, still seemed far in the future, and many of the Irish Catholic workers found they had to either walk to Providence or to Crompton to attend Mass. By the Civil War, however, the increase in industry had resulted in even more Irish working in the Oriental Print Works in Apponaug. By that time, there were enough Catholics in the village of Apponaug that Rev. William Halligan came from East Greenwich twice a month to offer Mass at the old Town Hall. Very often, the Town Hall also played host to the Episcopalians who, at that time, had no church of their own.

By 1873, the Catholics were numerous enough to call for the construction of a small 24’ x 60’ gable-roofed building on Greenwich Ave. It served as a “church and mission parish,” administered by priests from East Greenwich.


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