PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Franciscan friars held their final Mass at a Providence chapel on Monday for a standing-room-only crowd of worshippers who said they are grieving the loss of the cozy downtown sanctuary.
The Mass at St. Francis Chapel marks the beginning of the Franciscan friars' exit from Providence, where they started ministering in 1956. Holy Name Province, the group of Franciscan friars serving the East Coast, has also decided to turn over its city parish, Church of St. Mary, to the Diocese of Providence in June. They cite finances and a shortage of new priests in heavily Catholic Rhode Island.
"Part of me died," said Lillian DiMaio, 84, of Warwick, who wiped away tears during Mass. "I feel like I just came to a wake and I hate to even leave it."
The Rev. Steven Patti, who is the chapel's guardian and executive director, opened Mass with a joke: "Something happening here today?" He described how worshippers have flooded him with remembrances since the chapel closing was announced last month.
"It leaves us humbled and we thank you for that," he said.
Patti reminded worshippers that the order's founder, St. Francis of Assisi, advised followers at the end of his life that the mission of ministering to the poor, sick and helpless had to continue after his death.
Victoria Almeida, an attorney who has been attending the chapel since entering high school in 1965, told worshippers to be grateful for their time with the friars and continue their work.
"In my adult life by attending daily Mass in the chapel at 7 a.m. there would always be something in that homily," she later said in an interview. "The homilies were always a minute long, maybe two, but there would always be something there that during the course of my day would strike a chord with me."
The Mass ended with a round of applause. Five friars handed out postcards showing the three places the Franciscans had chapels in Providence and posed for pictures with worshippers.
Hope Lagner, 64, a legal secretary, reminisced about going to the movies in downtown Providence on Saturday nights and then staying up for the chapel's midnight Mass so she could sleep in on Sunday mornings. She regularly attended weekday Masses.
"It's just been great. It's a respite from the day," said Lagner, who is considering worshipping during the week at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
The friars first came to Providence 55 years ago after a chance meeting between a diocesan official and a friar during a pilgrimage to Rome, said the Rev. Dominic Monti, 68, the Franciscan provincial vicar based in New York City.
Providence Bishop Russell McVinney later visited the Franciscans' outpost in Boston at St. Anthony Shrine, where he was so impressed he asked the Holy Name Province to come to Providence, Monti said.
The friars transformed a furniture store into a chapel and opened it to the public on June 19, 1956. The same year, the friars also began ministering in nearby New Bedford, Mass., Monti said.
Around that time, the order had 932 members, including 615 priests and 36 novices studying to become friars, Monti said. Today the order has 342 members, half of whom are over age 70 and just 27 priests under age 50, said Holy Name Province spokeswoman Jocelyn Thomas. The number of novices has dipped this year to three, she said.
Monti said the friars have invested about $2 million in Providence in the last seven years to buy property to house the friars, pay the order's lay staff, maintain its ministries to the poor and run the chapel and church. But it wasn't enough to support the friars' continued presence, he said.
Providence isn't the only city to lose Franciscan friars.
Thomas said within the last year the friars have also left churches in Harlem and East Rutherford, N.J.
The declining number of men entering the priesthood is affecting all parts of the Catholic Church, which continues to reel from the clergy sex abuse scandal. Data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University shows the number of priests has gone from 58,632 in 1965 to 39,466 today.
In the Diocese of Providence, 14 parishes have closed or merged in the last 10 years, spokesman Michael Guilfoyle said. Still, the diocese said last year that 110,400 residents attended Mass, which works out to 10 percent of the state's population.
Alfred Petrucelli, 88, of Providence, called the Franciscan chapel his second home and said he felt awful as he sat in the sanctuary after Mass.
"I never thought they would leave here," he said.