Millie Santilli saw the writing on the wall for St. Brigid Church, of which she had been a parishioner for more than five decades.
She led the committee charged with raising money in an effort to help the church – which became a mission of St. Rocco Church in July 2018 – keep its doors open. She said she knew for quite some time that the parish was in dire straits, but she and other members of the congregation did their due diligence.
They held dinner and dancing events, as well as a mass at Goddard Park. Fundraisers were held in the church basement, and Marchetti’s catered the gatherings – hardly a surprise, since a number of parishioners came from nearby Cranston.
Despite those efforts, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence announced on May 13 that St. Brigid will permanently close on July 1. The closure of the century-old church at 1231 Plainfield St. was announced to parishioners during the weekend of May 4-5.
In a press release, the diocese cited “declining mass attendance and ongoing maintenance costs” as the main reasons for the closure. According to the diocese, average attendance at St. Brigid’s Sunday masses fell to 25 to 30 people after it became a mission of St. Rocco, and Bishop Thomas Tobin authorized a discontinuation of masses and public worship at the church in November 2018.
“St. Brigid’s was a small, little parish, and it’s always been just a neighborhood parish and a poor parish,” said Santilli, who serves as the assistant director of the Johnston Senior Center. “So, our efforts to want to keep it going and keep it afloat, you know, was really important to us … It was important to us to do as much as we could.”
Santilli has plenty of close ties to the church. She met and married her husband at the parish, and her children were baptized and confirmed there as well.
She said one of St. Brigid’s best qualities was that it accepted churchgoers from all walks of life and didn’t discriminate. She said the same in a letter to the editor last year when St. Brigid’s was named a mission of St. Rocco’s.
“So, it was very sad for us because like I had said in the article, it was a place that everybody knew your name and it was a place where you felt like when you walked through the door that you were with family,” Santilli said Tuesday. “It was very sad for a lot of the people, especially a lot of the older people.”
There was a sense of community, too, since St. Brigid’s close proximity brought in parishioners from Johnston, Cranston and Providence. She said the parish could have asked for more money in collections – she even suggested a second collection herself – from the tight-knit congregation, but the answer was always the same.
“They never asked for anything,” Santilli said. “Their thought was, ‘People are struggling to give from one collection, so how can I ask them to do two?’ And that has always been the way, ever since I first joined that church it was always the same thing, that they felt like they were lucky enough that people were giving what they were giving.”
Mayor Joseph Polisena said he knows how vital the Catholic Church is to a town like Johnston, which has one of the highest Italian-American populations in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates roughly 45 percent of Johnston residents claim Italian ancestry.
“When you look at 30,000 people, and obviously many of the old-time Italians are staunch Catholics and they were brought up in the Catholic Church, married in the Catholic Church, they made their confirmation, their communion, their children made their confirmation, their communion, their children got married in the church,” Polisena said.
The mayor said he had heard rumors of St. Brigid’s imminent closure, and he said he believes it has become difficult for many churches to stay open as attendance declines. A Gallup report in April 2018 showed that less than 40 percent of Catholics attend church in a given week.
Polisena, a Catholic member of St. Philip’s in Greenville, said that he doesn’t see a younger demographic joining the congregation, either. The same Gallup study showed that only 12 percent of Catholics aged 21 to 29 – the youngest group in the study – attend church once a week.
“Maybe they’ve got to appeal more to the younger people,” the mayor said. “I like this Pope [Francis] because he’s more contemporary and I really like what he’s doing. I think some of their old-time laws need to change, whether – and I’m not saying I advocate it – but whether it’s priests being married, coming from a different perspective, he or she will have a family.”
The town still has several other options for Catholics – such as St. Rocco’s, St. Robert Bellarmine and Our Lady of Grace – but Polisena said he hopes the closure doesn’t continue to negatively impact attendance.
“Losing that church, I feel bad for the people that are the parishioners that go to that church,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, I’m sure for them, to get used to going to another church. I’m hoping that they don't lose those people, saying, ‘You know what, I’m just not going to bother anymore.’ I don't want to see that happen. It’s a sign of the times. People say change happens all the time, but I don't think this change is for good.”