Based, in part, upon information from Catholicism in Rhode Island and the Diocese of Providence, 1886-1921
by Robert W. Hayman
Most of the visitors to beach resorts along the shore east of Westerly came to the center of town to attend Sunday mass. Vacationers to Watch Hill were able to attend mass in the Union Chapel on the main street built on land given by one of the Watch Hill hotels in about 1870. The chapel was constructed and maintained through contributions of various religious denominations who used it during the summer season. The Marist Fathers offered mass at the Union Chapel after they arrived in Westerly.
By 1910, about 400 people usually attended the 8:30 a.m. mass at the chapel. In 1915, Fr. Lawrence Kelledy, S.M., suggested to Bishop Harkins that a chapel be built at Pleasant View ( Misquamicut). A 78' by 38' wood frame chapel located on Crandall Avenue at the junction with Atlantic Avenue was ready for use in the summer of 1916. It was dedicated on Sunday, August 13, 1916, in honor of St. Clare.
After the Hurricane of September 1938, an article in the Westerly Sun noted that "Only a hole in the ground marks the location of St. Clare Chapel." By April of 1940, plans were made to construct a new mission chapel, under the jurisdiction of the Immaculate Conception Parish. Located on the Westerly side of Crandall Avenue, opposite Second Street, the building would have a gabled roof. According to the specifications of the architect John F. Hogan of Providence, the building could expand in time if more room were needed. The original structure was 62' wide and 109' long, with a total of 5,525 square feet. The church was built upon a poured foundation over five feet in height and eight inches thick. Sheets of metal reinforced each side of the studs covered by four layers of plasterboard. The total cost was about $20,000. Bishop Francis P. Keough, D.D., dedicated the new chapel on August 11, 1940.
(The hurricane of 1938 was devastating to this area. Parish survivors recalled their efforts to stay afloat, whether riding a mattress down the flooded streets or holding onto a rooftop. Once the storm left and residents were allowed into the area, they found only the foundation and organ had survived. The organ had been lifted and dropped by wind and water. They also found a candlestick and church bulletin. A shadow box in the sacristy of the church preserves these two items.
On September 29, 1946, Saint Clare became a canonically established parish under its first diocesan pastor, Rev. Philp McKenna. A charter was granted under the laws of the State of Rhode Island on October 10, 1946, under the legal title, "St. Clare's Church Corporation, Misquamicut." Edward Fenelon and Russell A. Lenihan were the first trustees. Mr. Lenihan served the parish under Fr. Philp McKenna, Fr. Edward J. Tiernan, Fr. Edward P. Boland, Fr. William J. Beane, Fr. Shea, and Fr. Harold J. Flynn.
During Fr. Beane's pastorate, the parish built the rectory paved a parking lot provided for parishioners. The church's capacity increased from 500 to 800 during Father Flynn's ministry. The church was completely remodeled to conform with Vatican II. The parking lot was expanded and remodeled. Schulmerich electronic "Coronation Carillons" (bell chime system) was installed.
Monsignor William F. Murray succeeded Fr. Flynn in 1979. During his tenure, the parish acquired the adjoining Santoro house and property to serve as a parish center. Fr. Edmund Fitzgerald succeeded Monsignor Murray.
In February 1998, Fr. Peter Cavanaugh assumed the role of pastor of Saint Clare Church. He remained until his retirement as pastor emeritus in March 2005. Fr. Cavanaugh established stewardship ministries and conducted a capital improvement campaign to restore and repair the interior of the church. The parish purchased a new organ, added a new church steeple, replaced all the windows, and added new siding to the rectory. Fr. M. J. Bernard Dore assisted Fr. Cavanaugh during his tenure.
Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Kenneth Suibielski, began his ministry at Saint Clare on July 1, 2005. Under his leadership, the parish sold the adjoining Santoro house and property and built a new parish center, opened in June of 2009. The main hall comfortably seats 450 people and includes a large, commercial size kitchen for preparing and warming food. Four class/meeting rooms adjoin the main hall. Each room houses a 42" flat screen TV for multi-media viewing. Through Fr. Ken's inspiration and dedication, stewardship ministries grew and flourished, serving both the parish and community.
Superstorm Sandy slammed the Misquamicut shores on October 28, 2012. The tides and wind demolished our beautiful beaches, only two blocks from the church. Sandy's storm surge advanced so fast and furious that it bounded Atlantic Avenue joining Block Island Sound with one of the coast's many tidal salt ponds. The day before the storm hit, Fr. Ken, Alice Duffy, and Jennifer O'Connor move equipment, records, and materials from the parish office to higher areas of the rectory. The ocean did reach the church's foundation, but other than the loss of patches of roof singles and fence sections, the church campus suffered no damage. The rest of the area didn't fare as well. The devastation was widespread; four-feet of sand covered Atlantic Avenue, and disruption of sewer lines and systems caused widespread contamination.
For the first time in many years, the parish closed for two weeks. The Army National Guard was posted at every access point to Shore Road with military vehicles and personnel with weapons securing homes from looters and danger. The military presence also cleared the area with heavy equipment. Crews worked day and night to clear a path for the homeowners, and during the process, St. Clare Church served as a command center for the cleanup.
On June 30, 2019, Rev. Kenneth J. Suibielski retired to Florida. On July 1, 2019, Rev. Peter J. D'Ambrosia became the new Pastor of St. Clare Church. In November, the Most Rev. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin announced the yoking of St. Clare Church, Westerly, and St. Vincent de Paul Church, Bradford. Currently, efforts are underway to achieve this goal, as Fr. D'Ambrosia manages this vital process.
The end of February into March of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Rhode Island. For the first time in history, all churches, of every denomination, closed their doors until further notice. The last Mass celebrated at St. Clare was on Monday, March 16, 2020. The church doors were reopened on Pentecost weekend, Saturday, May 30, 2020, with many restrictions in place. Restrictions made seating and communion lines near impossible. Reservations were needed to attend masses, hand sanitizer and masks were also required. Once a vaccine was created and delivered, families began to return to church, as of May of 2021, almost all restrictions were lifted. The parish attendance is almost back to normal. During the pandemic all sacraments were put on hold, once things began to return to normal, weddings and funerals were in large numbers.
Pastors of St. Clare
Fr. Philp McKenna, first pastor of Diocesan Church of St Clare, 1946-?
Fr. Edward J. Tiernan, ?-1954
Fr. Edward P. Boland, 1954-57
Fr. William J. Beane, 1957- ?
Fr Shea, ?-1965
Fr. Harold J. Flynn, 1965-1979
Monsignor William F. Murray, 1979-1992
Fr. Edmund Fitzgerald, 1992-1998
Fr. Peter Cavanaugh, 1998-2005
Fr. Kenneth Suibielski, 2005- 2019
Fr. Peter J. D'Ambrosia, 2019 - Present