October 22, 2014
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St. Catherine’s Church
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

Shortly after the Civil War, the number of Catholics in Warwick had grown to the extent that they felt ready to have a church of their own. With very little funds, they were successful in building a small 24x60-foot modest wooden building. They had hoped this would be but the beginning, and in time a much more substantial structure would be erected.

Unfortunately, 1873 was a year of a very serious “panic” or “depression,” which had a devastating effect on all of Rhode Island. The collapse of the A & W Sprague Manufacturing Company, the major employer in Warwick, seriously curtailed the textile industry at the time. It has often been said that, while Samuel Slater brought the textile industry to Rhode Island, it was the Spragues who nurtured it and made it a powerful economic force. Most mill hands were shocked as they thought the powerful company would never shut its doors. Poor management and political enemies worked against the Spragues, and while they had assets of over $20 million, they had incurred debts exceeding that amount. The demand for payment by the Sprague creditors and mismanagement by trustees forced the liquidation of the Sprague fortune and closed the mills. Unstable working conditions meant no increase in the Irish and French Catholic population for a while.

More problems occurred in Apponaug when Alfred A. Reed, the man behind the Oriental Print Works’ success, died. By 1883 the Oriental Print Works ceased to exist. As a result, Apponaug’s population declined, as did interest in building a larger church structure. Fortunately, this blight didn’t last very long, as a new company came in to bring a greater prosperity to the village.

The void caused by the collapse of the Sprague Company was soon filled by the fast growing B. B. & R. Knight Company. Led by the genius of Robert Knight, the company brought even greater prosperity to the state and to Warwick mills. Soon, more workers were needed, and the number of Irish, French Canadian, Polish and Italian immigrants increased.

By the turn of the century, interest in the building of a substantial church was rekindled as Warwick’s Catholic population began to rise. In 1913, even while some textile mills were suffering from a slump, prosperity returned to Apponaug. The reason was that Alfred Lustig, a very talented chemist and businessman, established the Apponaug Print Works.

This highly successful venture focused the attention of the textile industry on the village and brought about an increase in population. Within a few years, the Catholics were numerous enough to purchase some of the Brags’ property on Main Street (now Post Road) in Apponaug and construction began on the present St. Catherine’s Church building in 1916. World War I intervened, however, and because of the shortage of materials the church was not completed until 1919.

The present church at the corner of Post Road and Colonial Avenue is the result. The church is a one-story, gable-roofed brick building on an elevation that affords a commanding view of the village. Below a circular, stained glass window is a lovely arched entrance portico, supported by four columns with ornate capitals. Later additions and improvements include a large extension and a finished basement.

In addition to its Church and Rectory, St. Catherine’s Parish in Apponaug also had a convent at 3181 Post Road as part of its complex. The present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond A. O’Connell, fulfilled an early dream when they purchased this historic home in 1988. It was once owned by Mayor John O’Brien. This house, on the corner of Post Road and Spruce Street, was built in the 1930s to replace a home that was built by Caleb R. Hill around 1860.

Fortunately, the Hill house has not been lost. The large 2½-story, gable-roofed building with arched windows was moved from its original location to 100 Spruce Street. This structure reflects the transition from the Greek Revival to the Italianate Style with its wide veranda and attractive arched side windows. While it is no longer located on Post Road, it remains one of Apponaug’s fine 19th century dwellings.

In 1923 John H. O’Brien, the second mayor of Warwick (1934-36) and a parishioner at St. Catherine’s, purchased the house and the very large lot that encompassed the entire block bounded by Spruce, Coyle and Prospect Streets. During the 1930s a fire destroyed some of the interior of the O’Brien home, and he decided to move the dwelling to its present location and build a new house on the Post Road corner.

This new O’Brien home, now 3181 Post Road, was purchased by St. Catherine’s parish in 1955. In 1971 the house was remodeled by the parish and served as a convent for three Sisters of Mercy until very recently.

Mary P. and Raymond A. O’Connell purchased the house in March 1988. Over 17 years ago, Ray told his wife, “Someday, I will own this house.” At that time, Mary was the coordinator of religious education for St. Catherine’s. Two of the nuns who lived at the convent, Sister Patricia Farley and Sister Carol McGovern, were the co-directors of education and, along with Mary O’Connell, used the basement of the house to store audio-visual equipment. On many occasions, Ray would be asked to carry the material, as many of the projectors were too heavy for the ladies. It was during those years that Ray came to greatly admire the house, and when he heard that St. Catherine’s was placing it for sale he immediately made it known that he was interested. Part of the reason for the O’Connells’ interest in acquiring the house was the belief that they would soon be caring for their aged parents and would need the extra room.

Both Mary and Ray are very pleased with the house. They especially enjoy the sunroom and take advantage of the large flagpole that is on the property. They always fly the American flag and on special occasions, such as the wedding of their daughter, they fly the Irish flag. The O’Connells feel they have fulfilled a worthy ambition in purchasing the house and it meets their needs.

St. Catherine’s Catholic Church was designed by William McLaughlin, a Providence architect noted for his church structures in the early 20th century. The church has been dedicated to St. Catherine Benincasa of Sienna, Italy. It is an excellent reminder of the changing aspect of the village at the turn of the century and a definite asset to Apponaug and her 19th century immigrants.


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