St. Michael the Archangel parish celebrating 150 years

Thursday, July 2, 2009

PROVIDENCE — St. Michael the Archangel, the parish on Oxford Street that has been home to thousands of Catholics of diverse backgrounds over its 150-year history, is celebrating its anniversary on Sunday with a concert at 5:30 p.m.

The 1½-hour performance by the 60-piece Ocean State Summer Orchestra is only one of the events that the parish plans between now and fall. The concert will be in the church whose twin gothic towers at 239 Oxford St. have been a landmark for the people of South Providence for many generations.

For those who would like to know more about the building, the former pastor, the Rev. Raymond Malm, will give tours and a history of the parish, starting at 4 p.m.

And a block away, also at 4, students of what is now the Bishop McVinney School will guide visitors through the building that educated thousands of youngsters when it was St. Michael’s School.

Father Malm notes that St. Michael’s was not always St. Michael’s. Originally it was St. Bernard’s, named after a bishop of Hartford who died at sea. Back then, he reports, the parish boundary extended all the way to Rocky Point in Warwick

Though it was originally created to serve the needs of a struggling Irish community whose families had fled famine, parishioners of St. Michael’s came to realize decades ago that their church’s mission could not be confined to one group of people.

It was the first of two parishes in the state to have a Spanish-American apostolate, and one of the first to begin a ministry for Hmong and Laotian refugees. Today, it has Masses each weekend in English and in Spanish, and for Haitians. It has a special African ministry for parishioners from Burundi and Rwanda and a pastoral minister for the Hmong.

Today’s leaders include the Rev. Thomas Ferland, the pastor, and three other priests: the Reverends Joseph Craddock, Jacques-Eddy Chavannes of Haiti and Jaime Garcia, originally from Guatemala; pastoral ministers Hue Her and Luz Santa; and two sisters, Sister Joyce Flowers and Sister of St. Joseph Ann Keefe.

Helen Murray Toohey, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Michael’s, notes the parish outreach includes the distribution of hundreds of meals each year at Thanksgiving to its work in helping to create the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which has played a key role in helping to reduce the fighting among street gangs.

Given its size, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the parish can lay claim to a long list of doctors, lawyers, politicians and church people who are or were once associated with the parish. The names include the Most Rev. Daniel P. Reilly, the former bishop of Worcester, Mass., U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, former Boston Red Sox general manager James “Lou” Gorman, and Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan. It is the parish where Sister Mary Reilly and others started the annual Good Friday Walk, which raises thousands of dollars to help the poor. Henry Shelton, the activist who now heads the George Wiley Center, served as a Catholic priest and helped found Catholic Inner City.

Kathy Harrington, who is in charge of the parish’s annual St. Patrick Dinner, which typically draws 2,000 to 3,000 each year, said the parish’s reputation extends far and wide. She says she realized that a couple of years ago on a trip to Aruba.

“People said they knew exactly where the church is. All over the world, there are people with an affiliation with St. Michael’s. This is a vibrant parish, and I believe there will always be a St. Michael’s.”

The donation for the Sunday concert is $10 for adults, and free for children 12 and younger. Tours of the church and the school, which begin at 4 p.m., are free.


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