St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church
Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
While the owners and superintendents of the Elizabeth Mill and the Rhode Island Malleable Iron Works supported the Methodist Church in Hill's Grove, they also recognized the need for a Swedish Baptist Church and a Roman Catholic Church to satisfy the religious preferences of many of the villagers. The Swedish Baptist church no longer exists, but the Saint Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church continues to thrive. The Saint Francis of Assisi Church parish at Hillsgrove includes a school, with a large enrollment, a Day Care Center and a rectory. All are located on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the former Iron Works and Elizabeth Mill. The Swedish Baptist Church building, purchased circa 1946, is now the rectory for the Catholic Church.
An influx of workers
During the latter part of the nineteenth century many Irish and French Canadian immigrants came to the village to work in the industries owned by Thomas J. Hill. In a struggle to maintain their identity in a new environment, many felt the need to cling tenaciously to their native religion and customs. As there was no Catholic church in Hill's Grove before 1900, these Catholic immigrants walked from Hill's Grove to Natick to worship at St. Joseph's Church.
Mass in two languages
In his 1875 History of Warwick, Oliver Payson Fuller notes that Warwick, which then included present day West Warwick, was predominantly Protestant and that there were only five Catholic parishes at the time. These were located in Crompton, Phenix, Centreville (Arctic), Apponaug and Natick. Fuller, in his classic work, notes that there was a serious language problem among the Catholics at the time. In regards to the one in Natick he notes, "...within the past three years, a church has been erected to accommodate the catholic residents of that village (ie: Natick), and the resident pastor, Rev. Mr. Reviere, preaches to two distinct congregations at different parts of the day to one in English and to the other in the French language."
During much of the nineteenth century, there were not enough Catholics in the village to support a church. By the beginning of the twentieth century, as the demand for workers increased, many immigrants from Ireland and Canada came to work in the village and, as the number of Catholics grew in Hill's Grove, a mission church was started in that village in 1900.
Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, which had taken charge of St. Joseph's Parish in Natick in 1899, sent priests to Hill's Grove weekly to celebrate Mass. The earliest priests celebrated Mass at the public school until May 1900, when the small Mission Church of St. Francis was built. An article written in 1903 describing Hillsgrove at the time as "A Pleasant Suburb of Providence" notes, "...Of no less comely appearance is St. Francis's Catholic Church, which was built nearly two years ago. Until the edifice was erected, the Catholic part of the population was compelled to seek places of worship outside the village. The establishment of a church in the village has proved much more convenient and desirable, and the congregation is large. The rector of St. Francis's Church is Rev. Fr. Daniel Lehane."
The early priests
An official history of the church, written in 1968, does not list a Rev. Lehane as rector, but it does note that Father Lenehan, a diocesan priest, assisted Fathers Jean B. Guillarme, Louis Jourdon, and Gabriel Colte, the first Missionaries of the Sacred Heart from St. Joseph's Parish in Natick.
By 1915, Father Francis Van Der Heyden became the priest in charge of the mission at Hillsgrove and remained in that capacity until his death in April, 1942. For much of this early period, there was a Mass said in French and one in English to accommodate the major ethnic groups in the village. Father Van Der Heyden was succeeded by Father Francis Xavier Caron, M.S.C. On August 7, 1943, Father Caron became the first Pastor of St. Francis when the Mission became a Parish. A Silver Anniversary booklet, written in 1968 states that, "The boundaries at that time extended from Route 37 on the north to Main Avenue on the south and from Hillsgrove Airport and Post Road on the east to the Pawtuxet River on the west."
This handsome building, which serves as a rectory for St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, was once a Swedish Baptist church. The mill owners and superintendents in early Hills Grove believed in encouraging various immigrant groups to establish a religious entity in the village. Photo Don D’Amato 2008