The History of the Parish and School of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception

In October of 1827, James Lenox, a resident of Pawtucket, spoke to the Bishop of Boston, the Rt. Rev. Benedict J. Fenwick, regarding the increasing number of Catholics living near Pawtucket. He estimated the number of communicants to be between two and three hundred. In response, Bishop Fenwick dispatched the Rev. Robert D. Woodley. Father Woodley reported upon his return that Pawtucket needed a church. Soon thereafter, Pawtucket industrialist, David Wilkinson, visited the Bishop. Wilkinson had been assured by his Catholic workers that they would settle permanently in Pawtucket if they had a church in which to worship. On August 27, 1828, David Wilkinson, joined by his wife Martha, deeded a parcel of land on George Street, which became the site for one of the first Catholic churches built in Rhode Island.

The first St. Mary’s Church was a wooden building, painted white with green doors and Venetian blinds. The cost to construct the new church was $1200. Due to an industrial depression that affected Pawtucket in 1829 the congregation was only able to raise $600, the balance was provided by the Archdiocese of Boston.

In the year 1853, the Rev Patrick Delaney was named Pastor of Saint Mary’s. He served Saint Mary’s from 1853 until his death in 1879. During his pastorate, Saint Mary’s grew in many ways through his faithfulness. During his administration, he undertook the building and staffing with lay teachers of the first parish school in 1855. In 1858, the parish school had an enrollment of 200 children. In 1862, Saint Mary Parish was blessed with the arrival of Sisters of Mercy. Monsignor Thomas Cassidy in his history of Saint Mary’s “A Sesquicentennial Story” states the following: “the hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Mary Immaculate to Bernadette at Lourdes-February 11, 1858-had a special interest for the people of Saint Mary’s, Father Delaney directed by the pronouncement of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, rededicated the parish with the legal title, The Church of the Immaculate Conception of Pawtucket.” Emigration during the next fifty years greatly increased the number of parishioners attending services at St. Mary’s.

Rev. William Halligan would succeed Father Delaney as Pastor of Saint Mary’s. During his tenure as Pastor, he was credited with providing for the firm foundations of the educational and spiritual lives of Saint Mary Parish. In 1891, the present school was completed at a cost of $50,033. In 1885, the year that Pawtucket voted to incorporate itself as a city, Bishop Hendricken laid the cornerstone for the new St. Mary’s Church (present church). The building was completed in 1887 at an estimated cost of $100,000.; it was blessed and dedicated in the fall, by Bishop Matthew Harkins. In 1896, the convent was completed to house the increase in members of the religious teaching staff.  Monsignor Thomas Cassidy in his history of Saint Mary’s “A Sesquicentennial Story” states the following: “Father Halligan’s ecclesiastical career was a busy and fruitful one, it will best be told to future generations by the memorials of his zeal, his wisdom, and his enterprises, which he studied the various charges committed to his care.”

The Reverend John Tennian succeeded Father Halligan as Pastor of Saint Mary’s until his death in 1923.  During his many fruitful years in the parish, Father Tennian is credited with the creation of a School for Domestic Arts. In 1909, a new Baptismal font was installed in the upper church. This masterpiece was designed and created by the Gorham Company of Providence. The present rectory and garage was also completed during his tenure. He would also introduce a wide variety of lay activity including the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Rosary and Altar Society.

Father John McKenna was named to succeed Father Tennian in 1924; he would serve until his death in 1943.  In 1829, Saint Mary’s was preparing to celebrate the Centennial of the Parish. In a paragraph from the “Centenary Story of Old Saint Mary,” written by Father McKenna, tells of his arrival in the parish and his readiness to take on the task: “He lost no time in beginning the repairs and replacements which appeared to him desirable for the parish about to celebrate its centenary.” “Arriving on Friday, he had several mechanics of different trades at work on the Monday following.” Father McKenna is credited with a great amount of interest in the upkeep of the parish buildings and property.  On September 21, 1938, a destructive hurricane hit the State of Rhode Island. The ravages of the storm caused a great amount of damage to the property of Saint Mary’s Parish. Five stained glass windows in the apse of the church were destroyed. The school belfry was blown from the roof and landed in pieces on the playground.

Father Cornelius Holland was named pastor in 1944. Father Holland had served Saint Mary’s as Assistant to Father Tennian for twelve years. Monsignor Thomas Cassidy in his history of Saint Mary’s “A Sesquicentennial Story” states the following: “Early, in 1944, the return of Fr. Cornelius Holland brought great joy to his host of friends in Saint Mary’s Parish.” During his years as Pastor Father Holland was credited with improvement of the parish cemetery. The five stained glass windows in apse that were destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938 were replaced. In 1950, Father Holland was named a Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII. Monsignor Holland was succeeded by Monsignor Thomas Cassidy as Pastor in March of 1956. Monsignor Cassidy had served the Diocese for many years as Superintendent of Schools. Monsignor Cassidy renovated the lower chapel of the church and had the grotto built in the convent yard. He also implemented the reforms of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council.

In the 1971, the Reverend Monsignor Paul A. Lloyd became pastor of St. Mary’s in Pawtucket. He remained pastor until his retirement in 1987. Monsignor Lloyd was a true and faithful servant of the Church who dedicated countless hours to helping others to come to know the Lord. He cared for all God’s people with a pastoral and loving heart. Msgr. Lloyd, who loved the Blessed Mother, the Eucharist, the Church, was just the kind of holy and dedicated priest that Saint Mary’s needed during his Pastorate.

Since the retirement of Monsignor Lloyd, in 1987, four different Priests have had the pleasure of serving Old Saint Mary’s. Father John Unsworth; Father John Watterson; Father Charles Galligan and our present Pastor, Father William Ledoux.  Each of these talented individuals have brought their special gifts and talents to the people of Saint Mary’s. During their tenures like the Pastors of old they have had to deal with aging buildings and changing populations. Although there have been many changes that have occurred in the history of this parish one thing that is evident by all that have served and presently serve in the parish is how constant is the faith of the people of Saint Mary’s.

On January 11, 2005, our beloved Pastor Emeritus Monsignor Paul A. Lloyd entered eternal life. It was very fitting that with his devotion to the Blessed Mother that Monsignor would lead the second oldest Parish in the Diocese dedicated to Mary the Immaculate Conception. His love of the Blessed Lady is a true example to all of us of who we should turn to in our life for a good model.  He is sadly missed, but his inspiration will inspire us to continue the work of the Lord here on earth. In the words’ of Monsignor Lloyd, let us now “take charge”.

In October of 2004, we joyfully begin a yearlong celebration in honor of two milestones in the history of this great parish. Our Parish celebrated one hundred and seventy-five years of continuing to worship our God and serve those in need. In addition, Saint Mary’s School celebrated one hundred and fifty years of educating our children.  On Sunday, October 30th, 2005, Bishop Thomas Tobin celebrated a Jubilee Mass in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the parish and the 150th anniversary of Saint Mary’s School.   Following the Mass a banquet with over three hundred people was held at the Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston.

In January of 2009, Saint Mary’s Parish would face a very difficult decision. The Parish School which had operated for 154 years faced a number of serious challenges financially and structurally.  Enrollment had declined by nearly 100 students in nine years, the economic crisis, budget deficits and the financially strapped parish’s inability to subsidize the school’s shortfalls and make the necessary repairs on the building has created a very difficult situation for the parish community. Following consultation with parish trustees, auditors, finance council and school parents, permission was granted by the Diocese of Providence to merge St. Mary School students with nearby Woodlawn Catholic Regional School. Although a very difficult decision it is very evident that the spirit and faith of St. Mary’s School continues at Woodlawn Catholic.

In June of 2010 Father William Ledoux, the parishioners of St. Mary Church, Pawtucket, and volunteers from several local construction companies that provided their services and equipment at no cost to establish the St. Mary Playground at the Mother of Hope Camp in Chepachet.  The playground equipment from the former St. Mary School was donated by parish.  The new playground, named in honor of St. Mary, was dedicated by Bishop Robert C. Evans, during a blessing and ribbon cutting ceremony attended by diocesan officials, camp staff and several campers. Father Ledoux offered the invocation.

It is in the context of the history of God’s saving work that parishes are established.  Saint Mary’s Parish has made a great impact upon the lives of so many. Although the years have brought changes to our parish we are confident that in the years ahead the parish will be a guiding light for future generations.

Pastors of St. Mary, Pawtucket