2010-07-15 / News

St. Mark Church celebrates 50 years of service

By Sam Bari

St. Mark Roman Catholic Church at 60 Narragansett Ave. was dedicated 50 years ago to the day of July 31, 2010, by the most Rev. Russell J. McVinney, bishop of Providence.

The ceremony included the laying and blessing of the cornerstone, and the blessing of the church and altar. Later, the bishop celebrated a low Pontifical Mass.

The building has served its members and guests for half a century, serving as home to baptisms, first communions, weddings, funerals and memorial services. Within its walls, the faithful have gathered for daily Mass since the building was dedicated in 1960.

But this isn’t a story about a building. The real story is about how the building came to be – and why it was necessary. “The church” is not the building; rather, it is the group of people who dedicated their lives to fulfilling the needs of parishioners in the island community of Jamestown.

For many, “the church” is a foundation for their spiritual lives. The building on Narragansett Avenue is an iconic symbol of the ideology on which “the church” was founded.

The needy have experienced compassion and generosity, and the troubled have been given counsel. Through the years, St. Mark Church has adhered to the mission of the Roman Catholic religion to spread the Christian gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise charity.

Though the building that houses St. Mark Church is half a century old at the end of the month, the St. Mark parish is twice as old – and its development is a story rich in history and tradition.

Although the Jamestown Historical Society believes the first Mass was held a year earlier than the St. Mark website claims, there is agreement on the presence of the bishop.

According to the St. Mark website, the first Catholic service on Conanicut Island took place in the dining room of the Thorndyke Hotel on Conanicus Avenue on July 20, 1890.

Two eminent visitors – Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis and Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia – were being entertained at the Thorndyke by Mrs. Charles A. Faris, a generous benefactor of the church who summered there.

On that historic Sunday, the two bishops co-celebrated the first Mass at the hotel.

The following April, James L. and Catherine Wilcox deeded a plot of land on Clinton Avenue to the Most Rev. Matthew Harkins, bishop of Providence. Two years later, the Diocese of Providence built a mission of St. Mary’s Church of Newport on the property.

The church named it Chapelby the-Sea, and it was used for worship during the summer. In winter, residents took the ferry to Newport for Masses at St. Mary’s.

On a fall day in 1909, the Chapel by-the-Sea was moved up the street drawn by a team of horses. The chapel was placed on a plot of land deeded to the Diocese by Eunice D. Littlefield, who had inherited it from the Silas Carr estate. On this site, which included a house that later became the rectory, the Chapel-by-the-Sea was re-named St. Mark Church, in the new parish of Jamestown.

Rev. Patrick J. Sullivan was appointed the first parish pastor. Father Sullivan had a hall built behind the church that was used as a library, social hall and movie theater for the showing of silent films, which appeared at about the time the parish was formed.

During World War I, the parish hall served as a meeting place to entertain troops. In 1957, Rev. John W. Murphy took over as pastor and built the structure that stands on the land today. It replaced a building that was not large enough to accommodate the growing congregation.

Then, on July 31, 1960 – a year after St. Mark celebrated its golden jubilee year – Bishop McVinney dedicated the new church that is in service today.

John Collins of Newport built the church and donated the altar. He was a cousin of T.C. Dowling, a deeply involved parishioner. Mrs. T.C. Dowling made the original linens for the altar.

In 1984, the Rev. William J. O’Neill was officially installed as the new pastor of St. Mark Church by the Most Rev. Kenneth A. Angell, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Providence. Father O’Neill has been the pastor since.

Every year, Jamestown residents of all faiths enjoy the St. Mark Summer Festival, as well as the festivities of Holy Week in the winter. The church hosts a variety of social and civic events, as well as the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service group, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a Catholic charity, and a religious educational program.

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