The Church of St. Paul is in some ways quite unique. Unique in its foundation and history; unique in its location and parishioners.
In the mid-19th century, the American phase of the Industrial Revolution was in full swing along the Blackstone River corridor, and young entrepreneurs were busy making their fortunes. One of these was Wellcome Farnum, the owner of textile mills in the town of Blackstone.
A savvy businessman and generous employer, Farnum sought to provide a church for his immigrant Irish workers to encourage them to settle permanently in the area. Accordingly, he invited Boston Bishop John Fitzpatrick to Blackstone where, on June 12, 1850, he proposed the following: if the Bishop approves, Farnum will donate land and monies to build a church for his Catholic workers. In addition, he will assist in the raising of funds and provide the necessary building plans.
The Bishop readily approved, and immediately appointed Father Charles O’Reilly, then pastor of St. Charles parish in nearby Woonsocket, Rhode Island, to head the fund raising effort. Father O’Reilly, a native of County Cavin, Ireland, would also be appointed the first pastor of the new church that would bear the name of the apostle Paul.
Wellcome Farnum was not Catholic, he was Episcopalian. True to his word, he donated a parcel of land measuring 30,000 square feet, and valued at $2,000, and he opened the fund raising effort with an additional donation of $400. Among the first donors were some of his Protestant friends, and he is said to have provided the services of noted architect Richard Upjohn, who designed St. John’s Episcopal Church in nearby Millville. Today, the parishioners of St. Paul’s take pride in our unique ecumenical beginnings. A plaque in our Sesquicentennial Memorial Garden honors Wellcome Farnum as “co-founder of St Paul’s Church.”
In 2000, St. Paul parish, in a yearlong celebration, marked one hundred and fifty years of faith and service.
The church, which is constructed of granite blocks from quarries in Blackstone and Millville, was completed in Spring of 1851. Much of the labor was provided by parish volunteers, directed by builder U.J. Martin. The architecture reflected the 19th century Gothic Revival, and Episcopalian elements were evident in its design. The most notable of these elements were the wainscoting that makes up the base of the interior walls, and the absence of a center aisle.
Brides were sometimes heard to lament the absence of a center aisle, but a major restoration and renovation of the church in 1987 created a center aisle. Another construction element that has impacted at least one wedding ceremony has been the subject of feature articles in newspapers across the country. It is the church’s location.
The church building lies in two states. The Massachusetts-Rhode Island state line passes diagonally through the church. Thus, the sanctuary and most of the body of the church are situated in Blackstone, Massachusetts, while parts of the vestibule, vestry and choir loft are situated in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Because of St. Paul’s location, a significant number of parishioners are citizens of Rhode Island.
The story is told of the bride and groom who appeared on the morning of their wedding with the required marriage license, issued in North Smithfield by the state of Rhode Island! St Paul’s is in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts! A Massachusetts wedding requires a Massachusetts license! What to do?
The quick thinking pastor led the bride and groom to the “back” of the church, a part in RI. While the guests waited, they performed the civil requirements of the marriage. The priest and the couple then returned to the sanctuary for the remainder of the ceremony and nuptial Mass. Thus was the legality of the marriage ensured.
On April 14, 1931, the parish’s Institute Hall burned to the ground. Institute Hall had provided religious education classrooms and meeting rooms since its construction in 1874. It was not rebuilt.
On March 29, 1932, the church was engulfed in flames. Only the granite walls were left standing. The blaze was attributed to “spontaneous combustion of painting supplies.” Pastor Rev. Thomas P. Smith risked his life by entering the burning building to save the consecrated hosts and other sacred vessels. Restoration began immediately and the church was rededicated on June 23, 1933.
In 1971, despite efforts by parents’ group Save Our School, S.O.S., St. Paul School was closed due to financial constraints. Constructed in 1927, the school’s eight grades were staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph for forty-three years.