Former parishioners buy St. Catherine Church

Posted 7/27/23

St. Catherine Church that has been a part of Apponaug Village since 1917 was recently sold by the Diocese of Providence to Bluth, LLC for $1 million.

Matt Tonning, who manages Bluth alongside …

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Former parishioners buy St. Catherine Church


St. Catherine Church that has been a part of Apponaug Village since 1917 was recently sold by the Diocese of Providence to Bluth, LLC for $1 million.

Matt Tonning, who manages Bluth alongside his brother, Bob, said they “fully intend on keeping the structure as is.” They haven’t yet decided what they’re going to do with the building. Tonning laughs at a rumor that St. Catherine is being turned into apartments. “I’m not sure where that one came from.”

Anything is on the table, he says, but first they have to navigate what uses are permitted under Roman Catholic canon law, which dictates that former churches cannot be used for “sordid” purposes. Tonning claims what the Church deems “sordid” could range from an abortion clinic to, amusingly, a “pinball arcade.”

The brothers are no stranger to working with church buildings, having previously purchased two others, one in Niagara Falls, Canada (now a vacation rental property) and one in Conway, New Hampshire (now a pair of single-family homes).

“We love the buildings…” says Matt, “and like to keep their history going for many years to come.” This is their first Catholic church, however. And there’s another reason this is a special purchase: the Tonnings grew up as St. Catherine parishioners.

The Tonning family moved to Warwick when Bob was young. Matt was baptized at St. Catherine and many years later, his two daughters would be baptized there as well. Fr. David Ricard, the pastor during Matt and Bob’s youth — “as close to a saint as anyone could be,” says Matt — is still a family friend. Matt laughs again as he recalls a story from his teenage years when he rode his bike to church without bringing a lock, ignoring his father’s advice under the assumption that no one would steal a bike from a church. (Spoiler alert: it got stolen.)

According to Fr. Robert Marciano, pastor at St. Kevin Parish and president of Bishop Hendricken High School, there are three reasons a church might be closed and the building relegated “from sacred to profane,” or secular, use: structural issues, a lack of funds, and a decline in the number of parishioners. In St. Catherine’s case, it was the third.

St. Catherine originally opened in Apponaug in 1919, following a three-year construction period that had suffered delays due to the onset of World War I. In 1955, it acquired a nearby home, which it remodeled in 1971 to add a convent. The convent was sold in 1988.

By 2014, the modern religious vocations shortage led St. Catherine to share a priest, Fr. Pierre Plante, with the nearby St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Plante retired in 2021. Coupled with declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity (only three marriages, eight baptisms, and 13 First Communions were performed at St. Catherine between 2016 and 2019), knowledge of Plante’s impending retirement led Bishop Thomas J. Tobin to make the decision to merge both St. Catherine and St. Francis with SS. Rose and Clement Parish that July. The St. Catherine parish buildings were left vacant and put up for sale at an asking price of $1 million.

Although St. Catherine has emotional value to the Tonnings, Matt can still think like a businessman about the sale. Tonning says the property is “in the ballpark of 6- to 8,000” square feet, with the building in high-quality condition, acquired at an appealing price per square foot.

“Financially it’s a win” for the city as well, he says. Churches are exempt from income and property taxes, so putting the building to secular use means Warwick will receive tax money it didn’t have before.

The final factor in the purchase was the location close to home. Matt lives in Warwick and Bob in Massachusetts, and both of them have children. Out of state properties, Matt says, take away the time that he’d rather be spending with his family. As a result, most of the properties they’ve worked with are in Providence, and a few in Warwick. “This is by far our largest purchase,” he said, “and we are excited to see where it goes.”

Marciano said three Warwick parishes have closed in recent years. One, St. Benedict, is up for sale and has been proposed as the site of a new affordable housing project. The other two have been sold. St. Francis, with its vacant school building, is planned to be the permanent home of brand-new Catholic high school Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope.

St. Catherine’s fate, meanwhile, lies in the Tonning brothers’ hands alone.

St. Catherine, church, Catholic