The Sacred Heart Church in Natick

At a crucial moment in the history of the mills in the Pawtuxet Valley, a Catholic priest’s action stopped the possibility of a significant rebellion. Governor Emery San Souci, in an attempt to stop the violence that was threatening in the Strike of 1922, sent the National Guard to Natick. Mill workers, many of them Italian immigrants, had gathered and as too often happens when mobs are filled with emotion, the situation became serious. Thanks to the plea by Reverend Frederick Achille Tirocchi of St. Joseph's parish to the Italians in the mob, the threat of revolution and bloodshed in February 1922 was removed. The crowd dispersed, and the troops were able to guard the mill.

Many of the mill workers in the Italian section of Pontiac turned to Father Tirocchi for guidance during the difficult days of the strike. As the Italian workers accounted for over 50% of the work force, the community was especially devastated by the strike. Other clergy in the mill towns attempted to use their influence to bring law and order back to the villages, but despite the plea of many of the clergy in the Pawtuxet Valley for the workers to return to their jobs, the strike continued.

Relief for the Workers

One bright aspect of the episode was the success of relief organizations set up by the unions. In 1978, Luigi Nardella, one of the organizers of the textile workers in Warwick and West Warwick, informed labor writer Paul Buhle of the methods of organization used in 1922. He related, "One time we had to get fifty cents per striker for benefits, and that money had to come out of the strike fund." He informed Buhle, "We set up thirteen restaurants in the Pawtuxet Valley, three in Natick alone. My brother was head of one; it fed the most people and was the least expensive." Nardella remembered, "There'd be one hot meal, sandwiches and plenty of milk for the children....We gave the most needy families coal, we gave them wood, we gave them enough to get along."

The End of the Strike

Finally, on September 12, 1922, the end of the recession which followed World War I and the upsurge of production orders brought about terms the strikers could accept and the mill workers returned to their jobs. Some prosperity was felt in Pontiac and the Italian workers there began to feel the strength of working in unison.

A New Church for the Valley

Buoyed up by this, in part at least, they joined with compatriots in Natick to work for a church for the Italian families. The result was the Sacred Heart Church. The immigrants built a very attractive 1 story stuccoed building very close to St. Joseph's Church. The proximity of the two Catholic churches points up the awareness of ethnic differences and the significance of religion in the lives of the immigrants. Father Tirocchi became the new church's pastor and remained a most influential citizen in the Italian community until his death. The church was dedicated on September 1, 1929, shortly before the tragic Stock Market Crash which again threw Pontiac into a serious economic depression.

The Pontiac School

In addition to the church, the most significant outside influence on the Italian community in Pontiac was the Pontiac School. The school, built in 1907, survived until the 1970s and was one of the oldest wooden school buildings in Warwick. The earlier schools in Pontiac had been operated by the B. B. & R. Knight Company during much of the nineteenth century. According to a 1974 Warwick Beacon article on Pontiac written by Margie Bucheit, “…the very early schools were in a room on the lower story of the company owned "Lyceum Hall", which took care of grades 1 to 3, and the Pontiac Grammar School, which was on the third floor of the Company Store…..”

The 1907 public school proved to be a great aid in teaching English to the young children of the immigrant families. It also helped to tear down the barriers that separated the various ethnic groups in the village and in Warwick. In 1974, Walter Freeman, the Pontiac School's principal, commented that, even at that late date, Pontiac was "a village with country flavor and a great deal of warmth." He also noted that the lack of vandalism in the old building was remarkable for any city school and reflected the high regard Pontiac had for its institutions.

The story of Pontiac in the twentieth century will be continued.

The building of the Sacred Heart Church by the Italian immigrant population of Pontiac and Natick was a strong statement of the desire for the new arrivals in the Valley to create an important structure of their own.
Photo by Don D’Amato

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