St. Michael’s, South Providence Landmark, towers over landscape and architectural critic Morgan

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

St. Michaels Church in South Providence is a testament to the fact that there is a lot of magnificent architecture in this city beyond the downtown area and the East Side.

This too little known ecclesiastical treasure dominates the district’s skyline; its forty-foot tower is a landmark visible from all over town and across the bay. More than just an architectural monument, St. Michael’s was New England’s largest Catholic parish until after World War II, and it has long been the center of Irish culture in Rhode Island.

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St. Michael’s Church, South Providence, 1891-1915. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Previously there was a wooden church here to serve the Irish Diaspora. Land for significant worship space was acquired on Oxford Avenue and construction began in 1891. When the church was completed in 1915, it became the nucleus of a major complex which soon included a rectory, a convent , an orphanage, a recreation center and the largest school in the diocese. In 1930, a branch of the public library was built opposite the church, further enhancing this parish village.

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Saint-Michel church, side entrance. PHOTO: Will Morgan

James Martin designed the basement level of St. Michael, which was used for worship while funds were raised for the rest of the church, the work of architects Murphy, Hindle and Wright. Eleven bells were installed in the tower in 1939, but the church today is practically as it was built a century ago. The large Catholic churches in Rhode Island were typically built of stone (think St Mary’s in Newport or Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral downtown), and often in medieval French or Italian Renaissance styles. But this ecclesiastical landmark is built of brick, a material usually reserved for less affluent parishes.

As the mother church of Irish Catholicism in Providence, St. Michael’s is notable for its very English inspiration. At the turn of the twentieth century, some Boston architects advocated a Gothic style inspired by the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and adopted by Episcopalians. Henry Vaughan’s St. Paul School Chapel, for example, was undoubtedly a source for St. Michael’s. Romantic evocations of medieval England like the Chapel of St. Paul and St. George’s School in Newport (designed by Vaughan’s protégé Ralph Adams Cram) provided a fitting backdrop for the WASP ascendant in New England .

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Chapel of St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH 1886-1892. PHOTO: Will Morgan

These collegiate Gothic compositions, like that of Saint-Michel, are based on a strong and simple volumetry rather than on an abundant decoration. The plans are box-shaped rather than sculptural. There is a strong sense of the wall, rather than the more familiar Gothic evolution of larger and larger windows for stained glass display.

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Saint-Michel church, interior. PHOTO: Will Morgan

The interior of Saint-Michel is as rich as its exterior is chaste. Although decidedly English in the layout, the decorative scheme is a riot of color and lavish materials. The majority of the stained glass windows are the work of Birmingham, England glassmaker John Hardman, while the painted and gilded vaults, in English fashion, are of cypress (much less complicated and expensive than stone). The walls feature murals depicting the lives of saints.

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Saint-Michel church, interior. PHOTO: Will Morgan

As muscular as the brick bones of Saint-Michel are, we feel that the parish is putting all its money into decoration, especially around the high altar. The statues of Jesus and various saints are carved in Siena marble; the walls are adorned with Venetian glass mosaics and mother-of-pearl inlays. The dazzling richness of the altar wall reminds us that St. Michael’s was the heart of an incredibly vibrant Irish Catholic neighborhood when Benefit Street was across the tracks.

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Saint-Michel church, interior. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Neighborhoods are changing, as the post-war flow of Irish people to the suburbs, along with the influx of other immigrants, has dramatically changed the complexion of South Providence.

Yet this once large and influential Catholic parish continues to serve new immigrants, even though the convent and school are no longer part of its mission. The congregation is predominantly Spanish-speaking, while masses are also celebrated in Hmong, Haitian Creole, and Kirundi, an African language.

St. Michael’s is indeed an architectural monument. But its conception is only one manifestation of its role as the center of community life. Just as its Anglo-Catholic appearance sets it apart from typical mainland Catholic sources, St. Michael’s has retained a spirit of independence at odds with its often conservative diocese. Perhaps the best example is when, fifty years ago this summer, St. Michael’s offered sanctuary to Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, who was being hunted down by the FBI for his anti-war protests.

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Architecture critic Morgan is the author of American Country Churches and The Almighty Wall: The Architecture of Henry Vaughan. He taught in Princeton, Louisville and Roger Williams.

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