HOPKINTON – In 1922, the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Providence purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church in Hope Valley. The transaction began what would become the long history of St. Joseph’s Church.
The next year would be pivotal in establishing the worshipping place and congregation. On Feb. 18, 1923, at 3:00, the church held a Stations of the Cross ceremony, which consisted of blessing and setting up an illustrated story of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Fourteen pictures portrayed the four stages of Christ’s journey and, during the ceremony, they were hung along the walls of the church where they remain today.
Following the initial ceremony, during which 50-year-old Reverend Julius P. Cassagne gave a sermon which explained the meaning of the devotional exercises, the same practice would take place annually, every Sunday morning during Lent.
That first year, on the eighth day of March, a new altar was gifted to the church by Joseph Girard of Canonchet. Presented as a memorial to his mother, the altar had arrived at its new location five days earlier and set up on March 5 by G.L. Palmer & Sons.
Constructed of plaster composition, the body of the altar was finished in white marble with columns of Mexican onyx. A colorful mosaic panel, which served as a background for the crucifix, was situated above the burnished brass Tabernacle door. A beautiful Romanesque Exposition Canopy rose above the altar, standing nine feet over the platform. The panel fronting the altar table was set with a symbol of the Lamb of God, and the altar finished with six massive bronze candlesticks and a set of Altar Canons.
In addition to Girard, several other church members presented gifts to their new place of worship. The wife of Joseph Osowski arrived with four large lilies to flank the altar. Marie Devere, the famous circus sword swallower and resident of Wyoming, gifted the church with a statue of the Sacred Heart. Sophie Nadonly added a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Both statues were placed on opposite sides of the altar, on wall brackets which were shaped like the heads of angels.
A delicate piece of handmade lace which had won first prize at the Kingston Fair, was donated to the church by champion fencer and Arcadia resident, Helen Englehardt and used over the altar.
Soon, the statues of the saints would be covered with purple veils, symbolic of the sadness felt after Christ’s death. In Catholic tradition, this time of mourning would be observed for the last two weeks of Lent.
On March 18, the church gained twenty-two additional members, adding to their quickly growing congregation. Two societies were also formed; the Blessed Virgin Society for girls, and the St. Joseph Society for boys. The purpose of the groups were to help develop and foster the young people’s loyalty to the church.
The following week, Palm Sunday was observed for the first time at St. Joseph’s. Palms were blessed and passed out to church members before mass, in remembrance of Christ entering Jerusalem upon a road which had been strewn with palms for his arrival.
Beginning on April 1 of that year, the regular schedule of masses went into effect. From then on, Sunday mass would begin at 8:30 in the morning on the first Sunday of each month for those desiring to receive Holy Communion. On other Sundays, mass would begin at 10:30.
June 3 brought the receipt of first Holy Communion to seven local Catholic children. The children included Eugene and Rosanna Thibaud; William Bitgood; Jan Cekala, Pauline Pukas, the 9-year-old daughter of John and Mary Pukas; Sophie Osowski, 8-year-old daughter of Joseph and Viola (Piascik) Osowski; and Gadwiga Ponichtera, the 9-year-old daughter of Stanley and Francis Ponichtera.
Many of the church members were natives of Poland, residing in small ethnic settlements throughout Hopkinton and Richmond. One such settlement was along Wood River Road in Richmond, and another along Main Street in Hopkinton.
The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament was also observed that day with the subject of the sermon being “What the Holy Eucharist Means to Us.”
Two weeks later, the dedication of the new church was held at 10:30 in the morning. The congregation formed a procession in order to escort Providence Bishop, Reverend William A. Hickey, to the church where he would conduct the ceremony. Upon their arrival at the door, Hickey was welcomed and presented with a selection by the choir.
Father Cassagne addressed the congregation by explaining the meaning of the outdoor ceremony which was about to take place, prior to Hickey’s blessing. No one would be allowed to enter the church again until the blessing had been given.
Following the ceremony, everyone filed inside and the mass ensued. Hickey also gave confirmation to eight children and eight adults. Inside, members viewed even more gifts which had been bestowed upon the church. A heavy panel made of relief work depicted St. Joseph and was donated as a memorial to 3-year-old Sylvia Aviana Briggs, the daughter of Hezekiah and Edwinana Briggs. The family had come from England and settled on Spring Street in Hope Valley. On the recent afternoon of May 3, Sylvia had been playing in the road in front of her house with her brothers when she ran out in front of an automobile driven by Charles Clarke.
Another similarly made panel depicted Polish priest St. Stanislas and was donated by Bronislaw and Antonine Zega in memory of their 7-year-old son Wallace who had died unexpectedly a few months earlier.
Two holy water receptacles shaped like the heads of angels had also been donated; one by a Mrs. Zegarzowska and the other by Joseph Haberek, the 20-year-old son of Anthony and Veronica Haberek.
Despite the success of the church, not everyone was happy to see the emergence of a Catholic place of worship in Hope Valley. This prompted Cassagne to write a letter to the local newspaper on June 14 whereby he addressed the public. “It is barely possible that some few may view the inaugurating a new Catholic church in this community with a feeling of trepidation,” he wrote. “But surely there is no ground for fear. The Catholic church comes in your midst with a message of peace and good will, as an additional agency aiming to cooperate with the others already here.”
Cassagne assured the community that the church was devoted to fostering “a spirit of greater cordiality and good will with our non-Catholic neighbors.” He then reminded them that “the hobgoblins of prejudice and bigotry thrive only in the darkness of ignorance.”
For 92 years now, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hope Valley has held true to Cassagne’s promise and to the memories of those who helped raise it up from its humble beginnings, through their donations, their dedication and their faith.
Kelly Sullivan is a freelance features and history writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.