Luminous frescoes, adorned with the faces of parishioners, inspire effort to preserve a shuttered Woonsocket church

By Elizabeth Gudrais
Published in The Providence Sunday Journal
July 21, 2002

This story won first place in the "Religious Feature" category in the Rhode Island Press Association's 2002 journalism awards.

WOONSOCKET - On a side altar at St. Ann Church, the tabernacle is empty, its door halfway open.

No priest has said Mass here in nearly two years, but collection baskets, lined in red velvet, still stand in pairs at the front of the church.

The fonts that once held holy water are dry.

Once the center of life for a vital French Canadian parish, St. Ann's closed in October 2000, facing dwindling attendance and a massive repair bill. Today, it echoes with emptiness.

But a glance upward reveals walls and ceilings covered in more than 175 glorious frescoes of biblical scenes, a rainbow of colors and light.

The frescoes depict the whole of human existence as the Christian tradition understands it, from creation to the Last Judgment. But they also hold stories of the lives of the parishioners of St. Ann's. Italian artist Guido Nincheri used parishioners as models; each face is an image of someone who lived in Woonsocket in the 1940s.

These are the faces of a devoted parish, whose members would attend Mass on Sunday mornings, then return Sunday evenings for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, so many that they wore shallow valleys in the wooden floor between the pews. They would come on weekdays for daily Mass, bingo night, a committee meeting, choir practice, a church play, or a social circle.

St. Ann's was "as much a part of our family as our living room," says Paul Bourget, a lifelong parishioner who went from being an altar boy to filling leadership roles on parish councils and committees.

Had it been home to a different parish, St. Ann's might have gone the way of other churches that have closed as their congregations shrank: either demolished or stripped of their liturgical furnishings and sold.

But perseverance has always distinguished the people of St. Ann's. Now, a group of former parishioners, led by Bourget, have reopened their magnificent church building, not as a place of worship, but as a cultural center.

After two years of laying groundwork, the volunteer group has been granted a 99-year lease to the building from the Diocese of Providence, and has already set about scheduling events and applying for grant money for the $2 million in needed repairs.

But the group's foremost goal, Bourget says, is to allow people to view the frescoes and learn the stories they contain, and to add to the rich tradition of history and memories the building symbolizes.

"We just want to keep it open," Bourget says. "That's all we want to do."

GUIDO NINCHERI arrived in Woonsocket in 1940, hired to beautify the interior of St. Ann's in honor of the 50th anniversary of the parish.

Born in 1885 in a small Tuscan city and educated in Florence, Nincheri emigrated to Quebec in 1914 with his new wife, Giulia. There, he became well-known in French Canadian circles for decorating churches.

He was knighted by Pope Pius XI in 1933 as one of the great artists of the Catholic Church. His paintings and stained glass windows appear in nearly 100 churches in Canada and a dozen in Rhode Island.

Nincheri's mission in Woonsocket, as phrased in his contract: to show why St. Ann, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was the greatest of all saints.

The artist, then 55, was thrilled to find that the church's interior walls were stucco, rather than plaster. The walls had been left unfinished because, at the end of the church's construction in 1917, the parish had spent the entire $160,000 it raised for the building.

The unplastered walls meant Nincheri could use the same technique Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel - applying a layer of plaster and painting while the plaster was still wet, so the painting actually became part of the wall.

It took Nincheri eight years to finish the paintings. His scaffolding became a fixture, captured in hundreds of wedding and First Communion photographs.

Cold winters and warm humid summers affected the chemistry of the paint, leaving Nincheri six months of good painting time each year. He spent the rest of the time sketching portraits of his parish models and planning.

The going rate for child models was 50 cents and a peanut butter sandwich; that's what Nincheri paid the two boys whose faces appear on two devils in the Last Judgment scene. Unknown to the boys, who were in seventh grade at St. Ann's school at the time, their teacher had recommended them when Nincheri asked for the two most mischievous students in the class.

The nun who would play Mozart on the church organ in the afternoons while Nincheri painted appears on the ceiling above the choir loft as St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

St. Peter is thought to be Nincheri's self-portrait. A woman on the sanctuary ceiling, in a scene depicting the life of St. Ann, is Nincheri's wife, Giulia.

But the face that appears more than any other is that of Marguerite Forget, a lifelong parishioner and sometime soloist in St. Ann's choir.

Forget, now 83, remembers the day in 1940 when the Rev. Ernest Morin, the pastor, brought Nincheri into Woonsocket Trust, where Forget worked as a teller, and introduced him.

Nincheri immediately asked Forget (pronounced FOUR-zhet) to model for him. The modest Forget refused.

The artist said nothing more of wanting to paint her, Forget remembers. But that summer, he would visit her Elm Street home each evening and sit on the porch, chatting with her and her parents in French.

Then, Forget recalls, he would say abruptly, "I've got to go," and would sprint off up the hill, back to his apartment on nearby Wood Street.

Analyzing his odd behavior, Forget and her mother decided Nincheri simply wanted some exercise after sitting in the same position all day, painting 65 feet above the church floor.

One day, after all the frescoes were finished, Nincheri approached Forget while she was practicing on the church organ and said, "What do you think of yourself?"

Nincheri had painted Forget not just once, but 40 times. Every evening after leaving Forget's house, he had breathlessly sketched her face before it faded from his mind. Later, he had transferred the sketches to frescoes.

Now, in 40 medallions on the side aisle ceilings, angels representing the virtues of faith, hope, and charity all have the face of the woman who refused to pose.

Forget may have changed a bit with time, but she and the ubiquitous angels still share the same dark blue eyes, narrow nose, high cheekbones, and a halo of golden hair.

Nincheri, Forget remembers, said "he liked the look of my eyes."

Forget's self-description may offer a further clue as to his reasons.

"I always had a sense of humor," she says with a sly wink. "I'm not one of those goody-goodies who's always praying."

THE FRESCOES also reveal the parish's conservative tendencies. In Nincheri's Garden of Eden scenes, Adam and Eve are partially obscured by leaves. They were originally nude, but Nincheri added foliage in response to the complaints of blushing parishioners.

The scenes still leave little to the imagination.

After making his additions, so the story goes, Nincheri hastily disassembled the scaffolding and told parishioners that if they wanted more leaves they'd have to paint them themselves. They never did and neither did Nincheri. He died in 1973 in Providence.

The men of the church remember, with a twinkle in their eyes, how, as young boys, they would be punished by the nuns on Monday morning if they were caught checking out Eve during Sunday Mass.

ST. ANN'S SITS on Cumberland Street in the once-thriving neighborhood of le Coin de Social, or "Social Corner," named for Social Street, which runs through the neighborhood.

Looking at the grand French Romanesque church, with its massive cream-colored pillars and twin bell towers reaching to the sky, one might think it was built by a wealthy parish.

One would be wrong.

The parish was founded in 1890, but Masses were said in the church school building for nearly 30 years, while the parish raised money for a church building.

In the oral history of St. Ann's, a favorite nugget is that the brick church was built on the "nickels and dimes" of its 7,000 parishioners, donated in the weekly collection but also in door-to-door campaigns and numerous fundraising events.

Though the church was finished in 1917, it wasn't until 1930 that its clear glass windows were replaced with exquisitely detailed stained glass, shipped from the same French company that created the windows in the Chartres cathedral in medieval times.

Nincheri was given $25,000 to paint his frescoes, and a $5,000 bonus upon completion.

Cultural center board member Leo Turgeon, 62, remembers that his grandfather worked for $7 a week. At the time, the average family donated between 50 cents and a dollar per week.

"We're very result-oriented in this parish, and we don't take no for an answer easily," Turgeon says.

ST. ANN'S PARISHIONERS have long attracted attention with their strong will.

In 1914, parishioners gathered in a blinding snowstorm to physically bar the new priest assigned by the diocese from entering the church. They were unhappy because the priest, though French-speaking, was Belgian rather than French Canadian. They got their way, persuading the bishop to assign a French Canadian priest.

In 1924, St. Ann's was the birthplace of the Mouvement Sentinelliste, a protest against the diocese's decision to commit funds raised in the parish to creating a new, regional -- and English-speaking -- school system.

The movement took its name from La Sentinelle, a newspaper published by its leaders, but also from its mission - to guard with dogged vigilance their right to speak the language they linked to their religion and their national identity.

The sentinellistes pressured parishioners at St. Ann's and other area parishes to mount a pew rent strike and withhold their weekly contributions. Several of the group's leaders filed a lawsuit, the first time an American bishop was sued in civil court.

Ultimately, they lost the lawsuit; the regional school system came to pass. Furthermore, the movement's leaders were excommunicated, although some were later readmitted after they recanted. St. Ann's parish was bitterly divided and lost a good deal of standing in the eyes of the diocese.

Having learned the lessons of the past, St. Ann's loyals today prefer a collaborative approach to an adversarial one.

But from their efforts to save the building that holds their life stories, it's clear that their tenacity has not wavered.

In 1997, St. Ann's parish merged with two other Woonsocket parishes to create one parish, All Saints. The three churches continued to hold Masses in their buildings, using one set of priests.

Soon after, architects examining St. Ann's to assess the need for repairs delivered grim news: the church needed an estimated $2 million in repairs. The frescoes were in fine shape, but the brickwork needed repointing, the roof needed new tiles and the stained-glass windows needed metal finishing work.

Bourget, then chairman of the finance council for the merged parish, realized it was impossible to sustain a building of that size with weekly collections. The merger compounded the problem, since some parishioners were reluctant to see their collection dollars spent to repair a church they didn't attend.

So Bourget began looking for another way to keep St. Ann's open.

When he first suggested to the pastor and other parishioners that it might be necessary to close St. Ann's as a place of worship in order to save it, everyone "thought I was a lunatic," he remembers.

But Bourget won his critics over; he and a group of 40 other volunteers set about developing a plan for St. Ann's Arts and Cultural Center.

They began to let go of the St. Ann's worship community. A single set of Masses for All Saints' Parish is now held at the former St. Louis church.

The nonprofit cultural center, with Bourget as president, was incorporated in May 2001. After a year of staging events and preparing plans for the future, the group persuaded the diocese to turn over the building.

On June 6, Bishop Robert McManus came to St. Ann's to grant the cultural center a 99-year lease for $100 -- a pretty good deal, all told.

The new St. Ann's has already hosted the Newman Singers, a Catholic singing group from Iowa; and Tony Melendez, a Christian musician born without arms who plays his guitar with his feet.

An opening gala is scheduled for October, with opera singer Maria Spacagna performing. On Dec. 10, the Vienna Boys' Choir will perform.

In addition to hosting performances, the cultural center plans to create a museum with historical artifacts from the parish. The frescoes, stained-glass windows, and hand-carved Italian marble pulpit, altar, Communion rail, and statues will provide ample material for art-history tours. The center also plans a scholarship program for local students.

The money from event ticket sales will cover operating costs - heat, electricity, the powerful light bulbs that illuminate the frescoes and cost $75 each.

The $2 million for repairs will come from grants. The cultural center hopes eventually to raise enough money to build an endowment that will generate enough interest to cover operating costs and repairs in the future.

Such a long-term lease from a diocese is rare, if it exists anywhere. The former Immaculate Conception church in Westerly is a performing arts center now. However, it is owned outright by the Chorus of Westerly, and the building was stripped of its liturgical furnishings. Because the diocese still owns St. Ann's, the church will keep its altar, Communion rail, and pulpit.

In addition, an administrative review by the diocese every five years will ensure that those who control St. Ann's in years to come continue to respect the building.

HISTORY CONSIDERED, it's no surprise that it was members of the former St. Ann's parish who waged an uphill battle for an unproven idea and ended up winning.

"You'd have to bet against us," says cultural center vice president Roland Richer, "unless you knew us."

Those who have donated their free time to saving St. Ann's are the same people whose grandparents worked the land in Quebec, whose parents labored in the mills and gave generously to build a resplendent place of worship that reflected the vitality of their community.

Bourget runs a financial consulting business. Richer works as a probation officer for the state. Treasurer Donald Hoard is a middle school science teacher.

It's a well-worn joke among the men that their salary for the St. Ann's positions has tripled in the last year - from zero, to zero.

The volunteers' next step is to get an opinion from architects about which repairs are needed and how much they will cost. One month after gaining control of the building, the cultural center has already begun applying for grants to fund the survey, which Bourget estimates will cost at least $30,000.

"You always feel like you're at the bottom of the avalanche, running away from the snow," says Bourget. "You're always running because you don't feel like you're going fast enough."

OLD HABITS die hard at St. Ann's. Coming to think of their church as a cultural center has proven a challenge for former parishioners.>/p>

At the reception after the lease-transfer ceremony last month, former parishioner Alice Harnois, 78, reflected on the building's new use with Roland Richer's wife, Diane.

"It's a beautiful church" -- Harnois stopped herself -- "a beautiful cultural center."

The two women shared a laugh.

"I saw a woman come in tonight and genuflect," Harnois added.

Overhearing them, Roland Richer interjected: "I come in, and I always want to stay quiet."

"I always want to dip my hand in the holy water," said Diane Richer.

Noticing Harnois's wistful expression, Richer reached over and squeezed her hand, offering a reassuring smile.

"It'll come," she said, "with time."

For more information about St. Ann's, visit its Web site at www.stannartctr.org. To arrange a tour, call Roland Richer at (401) 766-7415, or write to St. Ann's Arts and Cultural Center, P.O. Box 79, Woonsocket, R.I. 02895.

Photo credits, from top:
Steve Szydlowski
Kris Craig
Kris Craig
Kris Craig
Steve Szydlowski
Steve Szydlowski

All photos are property of The Providence Journal.