The parish of St. Sebastian was established March 11, 1915, from portions of the parishes of St. Joseph and the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. At the time of its foundation the Catholic population within its limits numbered 117 families, with a total of 484 souls. Most Rev. Matthew Harkins, D.D., named Rev. James A. Craig, then assistant at St. Mary’s Broadway, as the first pastor.
The first Mass for his new parishioners was celebrated by Father Craig in St. Joseph’s school hall on Sunday, March 21. On this date, he announced Masses to be celebrated on the following Sunday in the building formerly known as the Cable Power House and latter occupied by the Rub Dry Towel Company on South Angell street. Coincidentally, it was Peace Sunday throughout the world by order of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. In all Catholic churches the Holy Father’s prayer for peace was recited after Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament to implore the help of God to bring the Great War to a close.
HOUSE LEASED, USED AS RECTORY
A house was leased at 162 Irving Avenue as a residence for the pastor and as a place wherein week-day Masses might be celebrated. A meeting of the men of the parish called and held in St. Joseph’s hall on Monday evening, March 22, 1915, launched plans for the foundation and development of the new undertaking. The next week a meeting of the women was held and a land and building fund was started. On Easter Sunday, only three weeks after the inauguration and first organization of his charge, the pastor was able to extend to his people his sincere thanks for their prompt and generous response to his appeal for subscriptions for the purchase of land and the building of a chapel.
The Sunday following Easter was the last occasion upon which Mass was celebrated in the Rub Dry building. The temporary chapel then was transferred to the garage of Mrs. William B. McElroy on Orchard Avenue. At the same time a Sunday school was opened in the children’s play-house attached to the home of William H. O’Connor on President Avenue, with several young women volunteering their services as teachers. From the very outset there was manifested on the part of the people a splendid spirit of loyalty and devotion to their parish interests and an enthusiastic desire to cooperate with their pastor in his every effort for the upbuilding of the new parish.
PROGRESS OF PARISH DEVELOPED GRADUALLY
It is worthy of note that the progress of parish administration has been a process of gradual growth and development. The establishment of church societies–the Holy Name, the Archconfraternity of the Rosary, the Immaculate Conception, the Apostleship of Prayer and the Women’s Guild, as well as such enterprises as the conduct of parish assemblies and other social affairs which have become institutions in St. Sebastian’s were all outlined and Rev. John C. Ellis, an assistant at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, was appointed as administrator of St. Sebastian’s Sept. 20, 1930 and serves still as an assistant at the Cathedral.
September 22, 1930, Rev. Thomas P. Gilfillan, also attached at the Cathedral, was transferred to act as first assistant to the pastor of St. Sebastian’s. Father Gilfillan, distinguishes himself by his interest in Catholic education in St. Sebastian’s school. Father Ells is devoted particularly to the youth activities of the parish.
It is fitting that the house of the priest should be located in view of the church and, accordingly, when circumstances permitted, a property was rented at 42 Cole Avenue. After three months, this Slater Avenue residence was moved to its present location at 67 Cole Avenue, the lot upon which it stood being sold to defray the expenses of removal and the building of a new foundation. With slight alternations the building was made suitable for a rectory and admirably answered this purpose up to the year 1930.
RECTORY COMPLETELY REMODELLED, ENLARGED
In July, 1929, it was foreseen that a second assistant was required for the service of an extra Mass and increased parish activities. It appeared necessary to enlarge the parish rectory. A committee of men of the parish met with the pastor and pledged support to the undertaking. The work was accomplished within six months. Although the old rectory stands intact, no one but an original parishioner could recognize it. It has been remodeled by additions on three sides and veneered in brick. The rectory of St. Sebastian’s is generally commended for its suitability to its purpose.
With the church and house provided, further expansion was naturally to be expected. The ideal of a convent and school was gradually projected into realization. The Sisters of Mercy had capably directed and supervised the Sunday school from its inception until the fall of 1928, when the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame came to the parish to open a Catholic school. On April 17, 1928, a house adjoining the church property was procured at 518 Lloyd Avenue. It was transformed into a convent with an artistic chapel added. Through the characteristic generosity of the people, both convent and chapel were provided with appropriate equipment admirably suited to serve the needs of a religious community.
SCHOOL BLESSED NOVEMBER 21, 1929
The school was first organized in the convent building, opening another very important chapter in the history of the parish the present school on Slater Avenue was procured from the City of Providence on Oct. 10, 1929. After the installation of a new heating plant and extensive remodeling of the building, the school was placed in charge of the nuns of the Congregation of Notre Dame and formally blessed by the visit to the parish for Confirmation, Nov. 21, 1929. The school provided for the children a kindergarten and the first four grades initiated on the Sundays when Mass was celebrated in Mrs. McElroy’s garage. These societies have preserved their essential spirit ever since. The organization of societies for children formed on the occasion of their First Communion and the inauguration of the annual May procession were normal additions. The May procession has become a parish feature of marked importance. The early enthusiasm and interest in these manifestations of vigorous church life have not waned with the passing of the years.
PROVISIONAL CHAPEL OPENED JUNE 13, 1915
With the opening of the month of the Sacred Heart in 1915 a provisional chapel was in process of erection on Lloyd Avenue. On Sunday, June 13, 1915, the first Mass was celebrated there. It was with a deep sense of satisfaction that the congregation assisted at the Holy Sacrifice of in a place of worship they could call their own and hear with joy the announcement of plans for a permanent edifice to be finished in the course of the year. The cornerstone of this permanent structure was laid on Columbus Day, Oct. 12, 1915, by Most Rev. Thomas F. Doran, first Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese. Ably to embellish and adorn it, as the dwelling place of the Lord, altars, shrines, windows, mosaics, paintings, vestments, sacred vessels and everything pertaining to divine worship were selected with special care, transforming the modest chapel into an ideal church for a parish of the present proportions of St. Sebastian’s. With feelings of pride, the parishioners received the first annual report of their accomplishment signed by the pastor and the first parish trustees and auditors, Hon. John W. Sweeney and Timothy F. Dwyer. The latter is still serving in this capacity. When Judge Sweeney established his residence elsewhere in the state, he was succeeded by the late Robert J. B. Sullivan, who, upon his death, was followed by the present associate of Mr. Dwyer, as a member of the church corporation and church auditor, Dr. Albert L. Midgley. At the beginning of the year 1917, Bishop Harkins assigned Rev. William B. Carty as assistant to Father Craig. For more than 11 years, Father Carty fulfilled his priestly duties in St. Sebastian’s. His untimely and sudden death in 1928 ended his curacy. The late Bishop Hickey then appointed, temporally, Rev. John F. Tully who recently had been ordained at Louvain, Belgium. Father Tully was facile as a linguist, and after four months was transferred to another position in the diocese where his knowledge of the languages was required. That the people of St. Sebastian’s parish appreciated the value of religious education was clear from the opening day of the school. Year by year, successive grades have been added and the corps of teaching Sisters increased. In September of 1935, the school had an enrollment of 130 pupils taught by a faculty of seven devoted nuns. Sister St. Rose Marie was the first superior of the convent and principal of the school. She served for two terms of three years each. With the efficient faculty under her direction she achieved results in the religious and secular training of a group of children who were the admiration of the priests, parents and all representative members of the parish. Two classes of boys and girls, graduated with high honors from St. Sebastian’s school, and continued their Catholic training in the diocesan high schools of the city. Sister St. Rose Marie, at the canonical expiration of her two terms of office, was transferred July 25, 1935, to the important post of superior of Villa Barlow Academy, St. Albans, Vt. She was been succeeded by the former provincial of the nuns of the Congregation of Notre Dame, Sister St. Ignatius, who comes to a parish already familiar to her through her official visitations.
PARISHIONERS NOW NUMBER JUST 1300
The parish has experienced a normal growth, as predicted at the time of its formation, both by its founder and the pioneer members of the congregation, At no time has the number been increased by any influx of population. Beginning, as we have said, with only 484 souls, it registered in September of 1935 1,300 individuals, including every man, woman and child within its confines. Two factors made it possible to foresee only the natural development from the origin of the undertaking–the very limited area and the high cost of land and rentals. The church is of modern English Gothic and of the l4th century type of architecture. Substantially built of stone with an attractive frontage on Cole Avenue, it is surrounded by spacious and beautiful grounds. One striking feature in the general appearance of the church property is the statue of the Immaculate Conception enthroned in a bower of green on the lawn between the church and rectory. Here, on the day of the annual May procession, is witnessed the beauty of Catholic devotion to the Mother of God, expressed in the crowning of the Queen of Heaven, and in the consecration of little children to her service. Read the Providence Visitor article announcing the construction of the new Church here. An article relative to the dedication may be found here.
ZEAL, LOYALTY CHIEF FACTORS
An early slogan was to the effect that St. Sebastian’s began its life without the possession of a bit of land or a blade of grass. The priest and congregation gathered in the Rub Dry Towel Company building in March, 1915, were assuming, then, heavy responsibilities and burdens which inevitably accompany new foundations. The property of the present is visible evidence that they did not shirk their responsibility nor refuse their burden. Twenty years is but a brief period in the life of a Catholic parish, and still, in this brief period, much has been accomplished and a distinguished record has been made. The founders and promoters of the material and spiritual prosperity of St. Sebastian’s, both priests and people, have written their names, indelibly, in the records of the parish. Zeal, character, and loyalty have been, under God, the chief factors in bringing it to its present honorable status among the parishes of the Diocese of Providence. Reprinted with permission The Providence Visitor (now Rhode Island Catholic) September 19, 1935