September 21, 2014
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St. Barnabas’ wooden church
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

A little over 30 years after the Warwick Central Baptist Church was built, another denomination made itself known in Apponaug. In 1867 Warwick residents, including a number of town officials, looked for a place to hold services. As a result, an Episcopal service was held in the Council Room of the Old Town Hall. At that first service, the Rev. Silas A. Crane, rector of St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich, officiated. It was not long before the number attending services grew and it soon became obvious that it was necessary to have a building large enough to comfortably accommodate the congregation.

In 1880 the Episcopalians in Warwick were able to unite and gather to build St. Barnabas Church at 3257 Post Road in Apponaug. Elizabeth Ann Olsen and Clyde Stroud Wilson, in their excellent history, “St. Barnabas’ Story”, observe, “Very few churches have been built by so many.”

Until the first church was completed in 1882, it was sometimes difficult to find a suitable meeting place. When visiting clergymen came to Apponaug they often drew large crowds and filled the old Town Hall to capacity. In June 1880, the Reverend Thomas C. Cocroft, rector of St. Phillips’ Church in Crompton, established regular services at the Odd Fellow’s Hall at Williams’ Corner. While services were being held in these buildings, construction began on the site where the present St. Barnabas Church now stands.

In 1882 the first St. Barnabas Church was built. It was a 70-foot x 30-foot “Queen Anne” style, shingled building with a graceful porch and a round spiral tower. It was designed by the noted Providence architect Howard Hoppin.

Much of the history of the church is a reflection of the history of the area. For a number of years, the church struggled financially and it was impossible to build a rectory. Often the rector’s salary of $900 per year, or the sexton’s salary of $52 per year, could not be raised. At one point, a small cottage was rented for $7 per month for the rector’s use.

In 1900, through the generosity of General Francis Vinton Greene, the Greene Memorial House at Centerville Road was given to the Rhode Island Episcopal Convention. This old two-and-a half-story, gable-roofed, center chimney structure and ell became the rectory for St. Barnabas. It was given in memory of George Sears Greene, the brilliant Civil War general whose courageous stand at Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg was one of the outstanding events of the Civil War.

The rector at the time the house was acquired was the Rev. Richard H. Woffenden. His long tenure in that capacity extended from 1897 until 1920. It was during his stay that a Guild Hall was built on the Greene Memorial grounds in 1904. This was the beginning of St. Barnabas’ active role in making church buildings available for public use, a practice that has continued to the present day.

It was while Reverend Woffenden was rector that the wooden church building fell victim to a devastating fire in March 1911. The flames began in the rear of the Artillery Hall next to the church and spread rapidly. By the time the fire bells and alarm bell of the Warwick Baptist Church rang out, the wooden building was already engulfed in flames. All that remained was part of the front porch.

Once again, the congregation had to search for a place to hold services. From 1911 until 1923, masses were held in the Guild Hall and the Greene Memorial House. It wasn’t until 1921 that work began again at the old site. The result, after five years, was the present day Gothic-style church. Much of the credit for the building is given to Reverend Gustav A. Schweitzer, who served the parish from 1921 until 1932. Called by some of his close friends “the beautiful beggar,” Rev. Schweitzer seldom asked for contributions, but he had the ability to make “suggestions in the right places at the right times.”

Father Schweitzer was able to successfully suggest to Mr. Henry Warner Budlong that a gift of $10,000 would go a long way towards the building of the much-needed church. Mr. Budlong, a wealthy farmer and landowner in Buttonwoods, heeded the suggestion. He later wrote, “My people are all Baptists, but I am not partial and I believe you are all working for the good of mankind. My housekeeper, Miss Eleanor Ruville, is a member of St. Barnabas’ Church and I would like to have her attend oftener...”

The Late Reverend Howard C. Olsen, who retired as rector in 1990 and was rector emeritus until his death, commented that although Father Schweitzer has been gone since 1932, older parishioners still say, “Well, Father Schweitzer would have done it this way.”

Not long after the terrible fire of 1911 destroyed St. Barnabas Church, plans were being made to build a stone structure in its place. In the interim, services were held in the Guild Hall and the Greene Memorial House on Centerville Road. Finally, in 1921, work began on the site of the old church. The result was the lovely building we see today.

The beautiful St. Barnabas Church at 3257 Post Road, a lovely stone, rural English-type Gothic building, was completed in 1926. Work had begun on it in 1923 when Schweitzer was able to raise enough money to begin construction. In 1923 the church basement was completed and roofed over. Services were held there until money could be raised to complete the structure. During this period, the Guild Hall on the Greene Memorial property off Centerville Road was rented to the Warwick School Board for classroom space at a monthly fee of $50. The hall was eventually sold to the Apponaug Co. for $3,500 in 1926.

Rev. Schweitzer, in addition to playing a key role in raising the necessary funds, was a dominant force in determining the architectural style and detail of the building. As a result, the building was made of fieldstone, with a two-story central tower, corner buttresses, a belfry and a battlements parapet. It was completed at a cost of $24,045.75.

Since the parish was organized, it has become an important part of the history of the community. Reverend Howard C. Olsen, who became rector in 1953 and is still active in church affairs, commented, “One of the most fascinating things about this section of Warwick that we call Apponaug is the way the churches and the community work together.” It is this spirit of cooperation that has been so much a part of St. Barnabas’ story for over 100 years.

When Father Olsen became the rector the parish was just beginning to grow. He was handed the parish register and a shoebox that contained records of parish families on 3” x 5” cards. The church at the time was also much smaller, having only 33 pews and no office space. Today, St. Barnabas is the largest Episcopal Parish in the Diocese with over 1,700 active communicants and the church has been expanded to 88 pews and adequate office space. For many parishioners, the expansion of the church is dwarfed by the great increase in both religious and social services designed to meet the needs of Warwick.

Today, St. Barnabas provides space for both young and old. Included in the many meetings are those of a variety of “self-help” groups, Scouts, dances, tutoring and senior citizens groups.

For most Warwick residents, the mention of St. Barnabas recalls many excellent choirs and music programs. In 1980 Mrs. Albert Green recalled the 40 years she served as organist, when she first played for the church. Father Schweitzer was the rector and there was only a small electric organ. Later, when Father Wood came to the church, Mrs. Green’s complaint led to an amusing incident. She informed Father Wood that, because of a high console blocking her view, she was unable to see the choir standing in the rear of the church. Father Wood, hoping to solve the problem, produced an army surplus periscope. When the congregation realized what was happening, there was a loud gasp at the bizarre sight and the periscope was never used again.

St. Barnabas was fortunate in acquiring a fine-sounding organ in 1931 and having it refurbished in 1979. A number of fine organists have played on this instrument. They include Phyllis Simonian, Robert Wittaker, Lisa Cleverly, Eric Simonian and Father Phillips. St. Barnabas has been not only very proud of its excellent choir, but also of its junior choir, cherub choir and hand bell Choir as well.

Among the most eagerly anticipated musical events over the years has been John Simonian’s singing in Hebrew on Maundy Thursday and the singing of leading soprano Helaine Christopher Mumford on Christmas Eve. The Christmas program was always well received, and on one especially stormy Christmas Eve Helaine Mumford was having difficulty in getting to the church. When Father Olsen became aware of the situation, he called the Warwick Police Department. The police were happy to assist and dispatched a police car to get the stranded soprano to the church on time.

In addition to enriching Warwick through its music programs, St. Barnabas has also stimulated some excellent artwork. The building is a fine example of Gothic style and features beautiful stained glass windows. Much of the art seen in the church has been done by Warwick artist and illustrator Karl Rittmann. The lasting memorials painted by this artist, include the fine panels depicting religious scenes and a magnificent painting of the Crucifixion, which hangs over the front entrance. Another artist whose contributions can be seen is Henry Ise, a church sexton. Mr. Ise constructed the two side altars and several other pieces of equipment that are still in use in the church.

The story of Apponaug will be continued.


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