Easter is a time of rebirth. This Sunday, however, it is also the end of a chapter for what was once the hub to the Norwood community and the Catholics who lived there.
The Easter Mass at St. William Church will be its last, according to the Diocese of Providence. This will surely be painful for not only faithful parishioners who have sought to maintain the church but also for the families who grew up with St. William Church and whose roots are there although they no longer live in the neighborhood.
Simply stated, the reason for the closing of the church are “the numbers.” Church membership has declined, and along with that has been a drop in funds. The church has sought to balance its books, even selling a portion of its property for single-home development. But it wasn’t enough, and with accounts payable totaling about $200,000, closing the doors was the last resort.
What is happening at St. William is hardly a surprise. The church’s pending closure was brought up at a diocesan town meeting of the city’s 10 Catholic parishes in February at Hendricken High School. The meeting’s purpose was to deliver the message that Catholic membership and participation is dropping across the state and to urge parishes to work cooperatively to reduce costs, better serve the community and share personnel.
The diocese faces a shortage of priests and, according to the information provided at the meeting, 18 seminarians are in line for the priesthood, however, 63 priests are eligible for retirement in the next eight years.
A comparison of mass attendance for a single Sunday in November provided another perspective of the issue faced by the diocese. In 2005 diocesan-wide attendance was 126,900. By 2013 it dropped to 105,100. Another startling statistic was the number of Catholic marriages. In 1975, 52 percent of all Rhode Island marriages were Catholics; by 2012 they represented 16 percent of the marriages.
St. William felt the decline in numbers, as have other Warwick parishes. But to imply that all parishes are facing the same future as St. William would be a mistake. There is strong support for the work of the church in Warwick as especially evident in the city’s parochial schools: St. Kevin, St. Peter and St. Rose of Lima. There was a time when these schools were suffering and, in fact, St. Timothy, St. Francis and St. Benedict Schools closed. While collectively we would venture enrollment at the six schools was more than the three today, the three are flourishing.
The numbers have declined at some of Warwick’s parishes such as St. Catherine and St. Benedict, and with retirements it may be difficult to secure a priest. Yet such a drastic action as a closure doesn’t appear in the cards for now.
As was made evident at the February diocesan town meeting, the bishop is looking for parishes to address these issues and by working together maintain their role of serving the spiritual needs of the community.
The loss of a once vibrant community member as St. William Church is difficult. It is not unique to Warwick or communities across the country. It is our hope that what happens this Easter spurs other parishes to plan while remaining relevant and an integral part of Warwick.