Luigi Nardella and Father Tirocchi play critical roles in 1922
During the early 20th century, having no church of their own in the
village, to hear Mass., Pontiac's Italian mill workers walked to St.
Joseph's Church, the imposing structure high on a hill above the
intersection of Providence and Wakefield Streets in Natick.
St. Joseph’s, Then & Now
For a number of years, St. Joseph's was known as an Irish and French-Canadian parish and had no Italian-speaking priests. Today, according to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission's preliminary report on West Warwick, St. Joseph's is "...the most cosmopolitan in the Pawtuxet Valley, numbering among its more than 800 families, individuals of Irish, Canadian, Italian, Belgian, Polish, Scottish and Syrian ancestry."
In the early twentieth century, however, ethnic differences were much more obvious and important. Many of the older Italians who spoke neither English nor French, wanted to hear services in their own language and yearned for an Italian-speaking priest who would be able to communicate with them.
As a result of significant pressure, Bishop Matthew Harkins assigned the Reverend Frederick Achilles Troche to St. Joseph's Church in 1912. The decision was a wise one as Father Tirocchi was instrumental in helping to keep the violence from spreading in the Strike of 1922.
The Italians had played a key role in the strike that devastated the Pawtuxet Valley and, for all intents and purposes, ended paternalism in the area. One of the leaders in the labor movement was Luigi Nardella who, along with his brothers, started the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union in Natick in 1918.
In 1978, writer Paul Buhle asked Luigi Nardella if he remembered how the strike started. Nardella replied, "Yeah, my oldest brother, Guido, he started the strike. Guido pulled the handles on the looms in the Royal Mills, going from one section to the next shouting, 'Strike! Strike!' But I was the one who had to go out and bring in the support."
Nardella informed Buhle that when the strike started there were no union organizers. He said, "We got together a group of girls and went from mill to mill, and that morning we got five mills out." Eventually, union organizers appeared and the strike intensified. Nardella says, "We had rock throwing, scabs pushed back, electric cars pulled off the tracks."
The calling of the National Guard
Violence began to break out in many of the villages and Governor Emery J. San Souci, bewildered by the refusal of the workers to return to the mills and pressured by the mill owners, ordered the Mounted Command of the National Guard to the villages to stop the strike. During the last week in February 1922, strikers at the Natick Mill laid siege against workers and owners who were barricaded inside and bombarded the mill windows with rocks. San Souci sent the National Guard to Natick.. Over 150 troops, many of them on horseback, arrived at Brown Square in Natick to stop a riot at the mill. The word of the presence National Guard in Natick spread very quickly and a crowd of over 1000 men, women, and children gathered to face the troops. Tension mounted as many of the workers gathered stones and it appeared that the soldiers would be attacked.
When word reached the rectory at St. Joseph's church, Father Tirocchi, hastily donning his overcoat, came running out of the rectory and pleaded with the crowd in Italian to go home and avoid bloodshed. His plea was heeded and the crowd disappeared from the square, allowing the troops to turn their attention to the rioting at the mill.
It is doubtful that any other single individual would have met with the success of Father Tirocchi. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured as the rioters at the mill fled before the troops arrived on the scene.
The story of the immigrants in Pontiac and Natick will be continued.
Thanks to Father Tirocchi, bloodshed was averted at the Natick Mill..
When an angry gathering of mill workers and the National Guard met at
the Natick Mill, the Catholic priest was able to reason with the
workers and persuade them to return to their homes. This plaque,
dedicated to the memory of Father Tirocchi , can be seen at the Sacred
Heart Church in Natick.
From the D’Amato Collection.