December 20, 2014
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Then and Now
St. Peter’s Church: A stewardship church
Terry D'Amato Spencer

During Rhode Island’s early colonial period, although Warwick celebrated itself as a place where all could come to worship their God as their conscience dictated, Roman Catholics, while having religious freedom, found themselves discriminated against in regards to political practices. An act passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly in February 1728-29 stated, “Roman Catholics, Mohammedans and Pagans were guaranteed liberty of conscience in religious concernments, but denied political rights.”

Some of the reasoning behind this act stemmed from the fact that there were very few Catholics in Rhode Island at the time to object to the legislation. Also, most of the colonists derived their religious beliefs from the Protestant Reformation, which called for many changes in Roman Catholic theology. Colonists in Warwick were mostly of the school that believed in a radical move from Catholicism and, while adhering to the basic concept of religious freedom, were not of a mind to grant political and economic rights to Roman Catholics and non-Christians.

In February 1783, thanks to the role played by a number of Catholics during the Revolution and because of the aid to the American cause by Catholic France and Catholic Spain, “Roman Catholics were restored to their political privileges.” Things began to change in the early 19th century as a large number of Irish Catholics were employed as workers in building Fort Adams and the Stonington Railroad. By the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution brought many Catholics to the mills in the Pawtuxet Valley section of Warwick. During this 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.

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 put 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.

The story of St Peter’s Church will continue.


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