Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2011.
By Jim Ignasher
Mater Ecclesiae College on Austin Avenue in Greenville occupies the former St. Aloysius Home and St. Peter’s School once owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Providence. For over fifty years, St. Al’s, (as it was sometimes affectionately called) was a place of refuge and safe haven for parentless children and youngsters who found themselves in dire circumstances.
For some it was a merely a way-station; for others, it was the only home they knew.
The origin of St. Aloysius Home dates back to 1858, when the Providence Diocese opened St. Aloysius Orphanage on Prairie Avenue in Providence. By the 1930s their building had become obsolete, and Bishop Francis P. Keough began looking for another location to build anew; one away from the confines of the city which would allow room for expansion. Such a place was found in Smithfield on property owned by a Catholic Charities organization known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Ground breaking ceremonies for the new building were held on October 23, 1939, and the event was well attended by church officials, politicians, and local dignitaries. The shovel used for the occasion was later placed in the cornerstone of the main building at the dedication ceremony held about a year later. (That shovel and other artifacts remain there to this day.)
“There is no finer place in New England for such an orphanage development.” Bishop Keough announced to those present.
The location was perfect for what the Bishop had in mind. At that time Greenville was the heart of Apple Valley, and fruitful orchards lined both sides of Austin Avenue. There was also a lake for swimming and skating, and room for gardens and athletic fields.
Brick construction was chosen for its fire-proof capabilities, for the dorms were designed to house two-hundred children and thirty-six nuns. Besides dormitories and classrooms, a beautiful chapel was erected with stained glass windows worthy of a magnificent cathedral.
(Saint) Aloysius Gonzaga was born to a well-to-do Italian family in 1568.
Deciding at an early age to devote his life to God, he entered a Jesuit order where he took religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.
In 1590 he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who told him he would die within a year. A few months later he became ill with plague, and it was during this time he had another vision where he was told he would die on June 21, 1591, the feast of Corpus Christi. He recovered from the plague, but died just as the angel had predicted at the age of 23. He was beautified as a saint in 1605.
St. Aloysius is known as the patron saint of young students and Christian youth. Perhaps this is why his name was chosen for the institution.
Within a year after the new St. Aloysius Home opened, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II. Not long afterward, the famous ocean liner, Queen Mary, was pressed into service as a troop carrier. The ship was well known for its luxurious accommodations; however, with a war on, certain amenities needed to be scaled back, such as the fancy bed linens normally found in the liner’s staterooms. This led to an unexpected windfall for the children at St. Aloysius, who received the richly appointed bed linens through a donation in October of 1942.
In addition to the linens, the home also received some fine wooden tables with matching leather upholstered chairs that had once graced the French Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
To help in the war effort, the children of St. Al’s planted a large “victory garden” on the property to grow their own food. Mother Superior, Sister Mary Mark, felt working in the garden built character, and the children of St. Al’s continued to maintain the garden well after the war.
The population of the home varied, rising at one point to 224 children. The Sisters of Mercy, the order of nuns who served as surrogate mothers, tried their best to create a home-like atmosphere rather than one of an institution. When asked about runaway children, one sister remarked to a Providence Journal reporter, “We don’t have trouble with children running away,” and then went on to relate how one young man who had worked in the kitchen, graduated from St. Al’s to make his way in the world, only to return two years later to ask for his job back; for it was there he felt at home.
Besides a home, the Diocese also provided an education through St. Peter’s School located on the grounds. However, enrollment at St. Peter’s wasn’t limited to those residing at St. Aloysius. It included area children as well, as attested to by Fran (Payette) Luminello of Greenville, who graduated from St. Peter’s in 1961. When asked to relate some of her memories, Fran recalled the clothing worn by the sisters. “The nuns wore habits in those days, and it hid their hair and made them look older. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that nuns actually had hair!”
The nuns taught school, and Fran remembered two that she was fond of: Sister Pious, and Sister Bernarda. Sister Pious taught first grade and was much admired by the children.
When speaking of Sister Bernarda, Fran recalled her “magic pocket”. Sister Bernarda had a hidden pocket sewn under her robes from which she would “magically” produce things like candy, erasers, pencils, etc. and pass them out to children who committed acts of kindness. On the other hand, children who misbehaved were told they might be put into the magic pocket.
“Nobody knew how deep the magic pocket was’, said Fran, ‘and as little kids, we thought it was entirely possible to hide a child under those robes!”
Another who stood out in Fran’s mind was Father Rene Guertin, the administrator of the home. She recalled how Father Guertin was always getting tickets to things like hockey games, the circus, or the Ice Capades. Unfortunately, the home only owned one bus, which Father Guertin often drove, but it wasn’t big enough to take all of the children at once. To remedy this, the priest would contact a St. Peter’s School organization known as the “Mother’s Club”, of which Fran’s mother, Anita Payette, was a member.
“We had a big family, so we had a station wagon.” Fran related. “Sometimes we would take up to four or five kids from the home with us to see the circus, or the Ice Capades.”
The residents of St. Aloysius had a communal pet bulldog named Queenie. How the snub-nosed canine came to be a resident of the home is not clear, but a newspaper account from 1947 relates that the dog was a great comfort to the children.
It seems that Queenie wasn’t the only pet to reside there. At one point the property also had a small barn which housed two horses that the children could ride.
St. Aloysius had its own Boy Scout troop that built a campsite and shrine in the woods about three quarters of a mile to the west of the school. Remnants of this site can still be found today in what is now the Cascade Brook Conservation Area. The ruins of what was once a fireplace on one side, and a grotto on the other, can still be seen, along with what once served as an altar and table. The date, May 4, 1942, can still be seen etched in the concrete.
On a recent trek to the site, Fran recalled seeing it while a student at St. Peter’s, and later as a young mother when she brought her children there for picnics. She remembered that a religious statue once stood in the grotto side facing the altar. Sadly, that statue is long gone as the site has suffered considerable vandalism over the years.
One mystery of the site is a nearby boulder with the words “Let It Be” carved into it. Is this a reference to the famous Beatles song, or does it have another meaning? Who took the time to carve it, and why?
In 1949 the Scouts of St. Al’s took on a more ambitious project by constructing a beach on the shore of Oak Swamp Reservoir in Johnston, on property owned by the Providence Diocese. The boys worked hard clearing trees, brush, and boulders before hauling in beach sand to create 114 feet of clear sandy shoreline. They also built two floating platforms, a small shelter, and a stone fireplace. When they had finished, Mother Superior Mary Mark commented that the beach would be a tremendous timesaver when it came to bathing the children.
In May of 1962, six girls, aged nine through thirteen, arrived at St. Aloysius Home with a story to tell. They were Cuban nationals who had been smuggled out of Cuba to escape the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro. Newspapers only identified the girls by their first names to protect their families still trapped in Cuba.
One can only imagine how difficult it was for the girls. They spoke little English, and the nuns didn’t speak Spanish, but after awhile communication became easier for all concerned. It was stated in the Providence Journal that the girls might stay at St. Aloysius for as long as two years. What became of them is not known, but one hopes they were one day re-united with their families.
In the 1950s and 60s, St. Aloysius would hold a Harvest Supper every October followed by a Casino night in the school gymnasium to raise extra funds. Fran Luminello recalled how eighth grade girls were allowed to be servers at the supper, and would often receive tips.
Although he didn’t attend St. Peter’s School, another who helped was Michael Cavanagh of Georgiaville, whose aunt was Sister Mary Alexine, the principal of St. Peters School at the time. “They usually had me selling cokes at the game tables.” he remembered.
In 1971, St. Aloysius was able to boast the largest outdoor skating rink in Rhode Island. Covering nearly a half-acre, the rink was built over a layer of asphalt that could be utilized as tennis or basketball courts in warm weather. Construction was done by volunteers from Local 37 of the Iron Workers Union as a Christmas present to St. Al’s residents. Martin Byrne of Local 37 related that the idea came about while planning a Christmas party for the children. The Union had planned to give all St. Aloysius residents a new pair of ice skates for Christmas, and then took the idea a step further by deciding to build a rink too.
In addition to the rink, an outdoor fireplace was built so skaters could enjoy a warm fire and hot chocolate. Total cost of the project would have been about $50,000 had labor and materials not been provided for free.
By the 1970s, the population of St. Aloysius had dropped to less than seventy-five wards and twelve nuns. Times had changed, but the mission of providing a safe-haven had not. By the early 1990s St. Aloysius was forced to close for a variety of reasons, ending more than 130 years of service. For awhile, the future of the old campus seemed uncertain until Mater Ecclesiae College acquired it and moved there in 1998. Thus began a new chapter in Smithfield’s history which continues to this day.