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Floods bring 2 churches closer on Easter

At St. Joseph Church, the Easter Sunday flock will be a little bigger than usual this year. Maybe a little damp, too.
Charles Downing
Father Charles Downing welcomed parishioners from the Sacred Heart Church to Easter services at his church, St. Joseph's, in West Warwick, R.I.Stew Milne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At St. Joseph Church, the Easter Sunday flock was a little bigger than usual this year. Maybe a little damp, too.

Spared from damage because of its hilltop location, the Roman Catholic church in the heart of flood-ravaged West Warwick took in parishioners from nearby Sacred Heart Church, which wasn't so lucky. Flood waters from the Pawtuxet River heavily damaged the basement of that church and two rectory buildings on the property this week, rendering it unsafe for worship.

The timing was particularly bad.

Easter Sunday is a sacred holiday for Catholics, who celebrate Jesus Christ's death and resurrection with a week's worth of observations leading up to Sunday. And no state is more Catholic than Rhode Island: In a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by Trinity College in Connecticut, 46 percent of residents polled identified themselves as Catholic.

So when St. Joseph pastor Rev. Charles Downing found out about the damage to the church 100 yards away, he offered a helping hand.

"We heard about Sacred Heart church being damaged and condemned from further use for a while, so we called the church and talked to the pastor and told them we'll certainly step up and make (St. Joseph) available to their people and to them for whatever their needs are over the next weeks, whatever it's going to take," Downing said.

His church holds about 450 people, but he expected 500 or more for each of the three Masses scheduled Sunday.

"Easter is always a full church," said Downing. "We will be squeezing people in this weekend especially."

Among them will be parishioners from both churches.

Slideshow  17 photos

East Coast residents dealing with the wettest March on record in some areas.

"There will be a lot of people here who have lost everything, who will be coming back from hotels and motels or wherever they're staying 'cause they want to come to their own church on Easter Sunday morning," said Downing.

The church will also host a funeral Monday that had been scheduled at Sacred Heart, and may add Masses to its schedule to accommodate the overflow until Sacred Heart can reopen, he said.

"It's a sign of unity of the faith, that another parish will take us in and our parishioners will be able to celebrate all the same sacraments," said the Rev. Richard Bucci, pastor at Sacred Heart.

The floodwaters and mud destroyed the basements and a small chapel, but spared two statues — one of Mary, the other of John the Baptist. Bucci's car was flooded, too.

On Friday, an inch-thick coating of mud as smooth and brown as Easter chocolate remained on walkways around and through the property, though no damage was visible from outside. In addition to water damage, sewage and industrial waste from area auto body shops are concerns, Bucci said Friday.

Also heavily damaged was a school gymnasium behind the church, which Sacred Heart sold to the Islamic School of Rhode Island in 2008.

"It certainly was not discriminatory. It got the Catholics, the Muslims and it's Passover this week," Bucci said.

Downing says he'll steer clear in his sermons of any remarks drawing parallels between Bible scripture and the disastrous floods that have stricken Rhode Island this week.

And, he says, he will be sure to share the collection box proceeds with Sacred Heart.

"We won't keep all the envelopes," he said, laughing.