Tropical Storm Irene makes modest impact on Rhode Island parishes

By Rick Snizek

Providence, R.I., Aug 31, 2011 / 03:55 pm (CNA).- It won’t be remembered as the storm of the century, but Tropical Storm Irene did leave her mark on several Rhode Island parishes.

A large tree fell outside St. Sebastian Church in Providence, R.I. / Photo Credit: Laura Kilgus, The Rhode Island Catholic

Compared to previous hurricanes and tropical storms that have roared ashore in southern New England with a damaging tidal surge and heavy rains, leaving flooding in their wake, it was Irene’s strong, gusty winds that mostly made her presence felt over the course of some eight hours Sunday, knocking out power to more than 300,000 Rhode Islanders.

While parishes along the coast had very little, if any damage to report, several inland parishes were contending with downed trees and minor structural damage Monday.

A 10-foot decorative steeple atop Our Lady of Mercy Church, East Greenwich, was toppled by the strong winds.

Providence Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans, who is in residence at the parish, reported to the pastor, Msgr. John C. Lolio that he heard squeaking noises while he was praying in the church during the height of the storm Sunday morning.

Msgr. Lolio subsequently learned that there were trees down in the nearby St. Patrick Cemetery, and others blocking streets leading to the church. At 11:30 a.m., a sexton informed him that the steeple had toppled over on the roof.

“It was worse then we thought,” said Msgr. Lolio.

But ironically, the pastor observed, the metal cross that decorates the top of the steeple was bent in such a way that it prevented the wooden structure from sliding off the roof and possibly injuring someone.

Although the church lost power at 7:45 a.m., three Masses were still celebrated Sunday morning. The power was not restored until 4:30 a.m. Monday.

“We celebrated Mass by candlelight and flashlight,” Msgr. Lolio said, noting that the 7:30 a.m. Mass was the most heavily attended, with about 200 worshipers present. The two later Masses had only a handful of participants each.

While an early forecast track last week placed the eye of the then Category 2 storm over Providence late Sunday, Irene’s actual path nudged slowly to the west as the week progressed. After brushing the Outer Banks of North Carolina Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane, Irene made a second landfall in New York City as a diminished, but still potent tropical storm, with hurricane-force wind gusts reaching out 150 miles from the center, buffeting parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

At St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish, Pawtucket, those winds punched out a board covering a 4-by-4-foot clover-shaped opening high up on the southern face of the steeple that once contained an ornate stained glass window.

“We believe the original window was blown out in the ’54 hurricane,” said the pastor, Father William J. Ledoux.

After celebrating 11 o’clock Mass in the lower church Sunday, Fr. Ledoux went upstairs to check the building.

“The chandeliers in the upper church were swinging, and the door was banging in the choir loft,” Fr. Ledoux observed.

When he approached the choir loft and could feel a breeze, he knew immediately that one of the wooden panels, about 120 feet up in the steeple, had been breached.

When he checked outside, he saw the board lying on the front steps of the church.

Fortunately, in times of inclement weather, when Masses are celebrated in the lower church, the front stairs are roped off, so no one was in the area at the time the board fell to the ground.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said.

At Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Community in Exeter, Sister Antoinette Jacques reported Sunday night that 15-20 tree limbs were down on the property from the storm.

She said that the situation was tense there Saturday night, when high winds began impacting the rural area.

“That was more worrisome,” said Sr. Antoinette, the church’s pastoral assistant.

Despite calls for an evacuation on Saturday in some parts of the seaside community of Narragansett—which did not include St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish, located three blocks inland from Scarborough Beach—the pastor, Father Francis Kayatta, went ahead with the planned wedding of a couple from Chicago. The groom’s family has ties to St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish.

The bride, he said, took the whole thing in stride, even as a reporter from The Weather Channel prepared for a standup report nearby.

“We never lost electricity at the parish,” said Father Kayatta. “We prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best.”

The pastor rode out the storm in the church’s rectory, a Cape Cod-style house.

The arrival of Irene brought mixed feelings from those enjoying one of the last traditional summer weekends of the year on Block Island.

“For the visitors, we are calm, cool and collected. For the visitors, the vacationers, it’s like pandemonium,” said Father Joseph Protano, pastor of St. Andrew Parish, of the disparity in the tenor Friday night between those who routinely cope with rough weather blowing in off the Atlantic as a way of life, and those who don’t.

The pastor of the only Catholic church on the resort island which sits about 13 miles off Rhode Island’s southern coast, reported Sunday that there was no damage to the church property and very little damage overall on the island due to the storm.

“I think we’re very fortunate to have escaped a very bad storm,” Fr. Protano said.

Printed with permission from the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Providence, R.I.