Just when the towering new cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence was being inaugurated in 1889, Holy Ghost Parish was taking shape in its shadow not too far away on Federal Hill and a new chapter was beginning in the history of the Diocese of Providence. Bishop Matthew Harkins, concerned about the spiritual welfare of the growing Italian community in the city of Providence, contacted Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini in Italy, who authorized two of his missionaries from Boston to come to Providence to preach a mission. The mission was held in August 1889 in the old Cathedral, which the Bishop had placed at the service of the Italian community for as long as necessary. The people, however, needed and wanted a place and a parish of their own. Bishop Harkins and Bishop Scalabrini agreed, and within weeks the project took roots. A temporary Chapel was opened on Brayton Avenue on Federal Hill and, on November 4, 1889, the parish was officially established with the name of “The Corporation of the Church of the Holy Ghost of Rhode Island,” the first Italian parish in southeastern New England. In April 1890, a lot was purchased on the corner of Knight Street and Atwells Avenue, where a wooden church was erected, while funds were being collected for a more permanent building, the blueprints for which were approved in April 1901. It took eight more years for the project to be completed. The basement came first and it was consecrated by Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini on his visit to Providence in October 1901. With new migrants pouring in, the community kept growing and was spreading in the city and surrounding area. The Bishop asked the Scalabrinian missionaries to establish chapels to serve the new communities, which would eventually become parishes in their own right. The first was St. Ann on Charles Street in 1895, then came St. Rocco in Johnston in 1903 and St. Bartholomew in Silverlake in 1909. Our Lady of Grace in Johnston followed four years later, and then St. Alexander in Warren and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Bristol. The list continues with Our Lady of Loreto in East Providence, Holy Cross on Hartford Avenue in Providence, St. Anthony in Woonsocket, Sacred Heart in West Warwick and Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Federal Hill, which was divided from Holy Ghost in 1921. The parish’s “golden age” began in 1922 with the building of Holy Ghost School, providing good solid Catholic education to thousands of second and third generation Italian-American children, most of whom remained loyal all through their lives to the Mother Church. In October 1956, last but not least, Scalabrini Villa was opened: it was the offshoot of Holy Ghost Parish and a sign of the Scalabrinian community’s concern for the needs of aging migrants.
But the story does not end here. A new shoot sprung from the old stump: the Scalabrini Center for migrants, which was first established in Holy Ghost Parish as the Scalabrinian missionaries, in partnership with the Lay Scalabrinian Group, endeavored to respond to the needs of the newer migrants. In 2010 it moved to Silverlake in Providence and took on the name of Scalabrini–Dukcevich Center and is operated by the Scalabrini Lay Movement.
The newest migrants in our midst are “different,” but they are no less migrants than those who came earlier, or of those who will come after them. The Church embodies God’s people journeying toward the heavenly homeland, and she cannot afford to ignore the migrants without denying herself. As the migrants of the past have settled and struck roots in a new land, Scalabrini’s spirit and insight live on in his followers and in the Church they are called to serve: they are priests, brothers, sisters and lay members, who look upon the migrants in our midst and see the person of Jesus Christ, migrant with migrants until the end of time.
Church buildings and structures are passed on from one generation to another, serving always as a reminder that the human heart needs a hearth, a home and a place of refuge during the harsh pilgrimage of life. The world around us frets and changes, but the world inside us thirsts for, and remains anchored to, the truth that never changes.
As of July 1, 2012, Holy Ghost Parish is no longer staffed by the Scalabrinian Missionaries. The identity that shaped its birth, as a Scalabrinian parish in the diocese of Providence, will not fade away. Holy Ghost parish began as a community of immigrants. The pastoral service, first provided to the Italian community, was rooted in the heart of a Bishop, chosen by Divine Providence to draw the attention of the Church to the care of all migrants. Bishop Scalabrini understood early on that human migration is not, nor was it ever, a passing event, or a temporary emergency, but a permanent social symptom ready to reappear as new crisis inevitably arise. Father Peter P. Polo, C.S., chaplain of Scalabrini Villa Health Care Center in North Kingstown, has authored this Op-ed in view of the upcoming Year of Consecrated Life, called for by Pope Francis to begin November 30 and end on February 2, 2016. It highlights the valuable contributions religious congregations of men and women have made to the diocese and to the whole Church, in particular, those who helped to establish Holy Ghost Parish in Providence, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Holy Ghost was established as the first Italian parish in the Diocese of Providence – as well as Southeastern New England – and was the first ministry organized by Scalabrinian missionaries to serve the many Italian immigrants settling in the area. From that humble beginning, 11 new parishes were born in the Diocese of Providence.
- Fr. Peter P. Polo, c.s.