CHAPTER 3: ORIGINAL VISION
When the team of Dominicans arrived in Fall River in November 1887, they must certainly have been astonished by what they saw: a veritable “boomtown.”
New streets were being laid out, new mills were under construction, new multifamily houses were being built everywhere. Several technological breakthroughs, like telephone service, helped knit the city together. Electric lighting was replacing gas lighting. This energetic urban growth would continue, on and off, for two more decades, cut short only by the onset of World War I.
The flood of French Canadians coming to Fall River accelerated yet again. The reasons: an 1885 conflict between English Canadians and French Canadians, a serious economic recession in Canada, and the resulting inability of Canada to adapt its economy swiftly from an agricultural to industrial base. It’s estimated that more French Canadians moved to New England than stayed in Canada.
It was in this context that a Frenchman of Spanish ancestry, Father Francois Esteva (one of the first four Dominicans from Lewiston), became St. Anne’s first Dominican pastor. He immediately set into motion a whole series of ambitious actions to keep pace with the parish’s fast-growing needs.
Education was Father Esteva’s highest priority. Most French Canadian families were large – families with a dozen or more kids were not unheard of. Since St. Anne now served over 6,000 families, that meant lots of children. Up to the Dominicans’ arrival, these children had either gone to public schools or had been taught in a series of wooden, house-like, parish-owned structures near the original St. Anne church on Hunter Street. At one point, St. Anne had schools in eight separate buildings (including some of the mission ones). Various Orders of religious sisters and brothers staffed these facilities.
With authorization from diocesan officials, Father Esteva launched the planning and construction of the Hope Street school. Completed in 1891, it was a substantial red brick structure that could accommodate 300 pupils and would help centralize St. Anne’s school programs. Parishioners were proud of the fact that, in quality and design, it matched any public school in the city.
Father Esteva had other ambitious plans, but it fell to his successor, Father Charles Bernard Sauval, another of the original group of four from Lewiston, to see them through.
During his pastorship, from 1891 to 1901, Father Sauval embarked on a series of major projects that would make St. Anne virtually a city within a city. The parish built a large convent/school on Park street (1895) and a red brick rectory/monastery at the northwest corner of South Main and Middle streets (1895, demolished in 1931). St. Anne’s Hospital – another Sauval idea – was completed later, in 1906, under the direction of the pastor who succeeded Sauval, Father Raymond Grolleau. (The hospital’s original structure is now totally gone, replaced by higher-tech buildings.)
Father Sauval had a much grander project in mind, though, one that would become a FalI River landmark, a building that would exceed, in size and scope, any other structure in the city: a new St. Anne Church.
THE NEW CHURCH
Someone once said that great churches are like prayers made of stone. That surely describes St. Anne, the product of the powerful faith of immigrants and the forward-thinking vision of Father Sauval.
The old wooden church on Hunter Street, though surprisingly spacious, had become inadequate for the waves of Quebecois that continued to arrive. Father Sauval knew that his congregation needed an even larger facility. He soon found an architect whose vision was equally grand: noted Canadian architect Napoleon Bourassa.
Bourassa was what the French called “Un touche a tout” (the closest English
equivalent: “a jack of all trades”). He was a painter, architect, novelist, art critic, sculptor, journalist, poet, musician, and author of hundreds of elegantly-written letters. Several of his students became significant artists and sculptors. His son, Henri, became a leading – and sometimes controversial – Canadian newspaper publisher and politician. (One of Montreal’s key subway stops carries his name.)
Bourassa’s early interests took him to Europe, where three years of study and travel experiences exposed him to the rich artistic legacies of Italy and France, and that later reemerged in his own prolific works. (He returned to Europe several times afterwards.) Most of the architectural elements we see in St. Anne represent an inventory of what Bourassa admired in Europe.
Why was Bourassa chosen? First of all, he had done considerable work on religious structures, including two gemlike Canadian churches that still exist: the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Montreal and a small church in Montebello, Quebec. He had also done many religious paintings and had taken on several church decoration projects, some realized, some not. He was well known to the Dominicans, for whom he was designing the facade of a Dominican convent in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. And, of course, he was French Canadian.
This was not unusual. Other ethnic groups likewise felt comfortable with architects from backgrounds similar to theirs. The most astonishing example: Patrick Charles Keely. Some sources estimate that his architectural firm designed nearly 1,000 churches and chapels, almost all Irish, including Fall River’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Patrick Church (now Good Shepherd).
What made Bourassa an especially appropriate choice for St. Anne was his observation, repeated over and again, that much of the world’s great art had been inspired by religion. A fervent Catholic, Bourassa looked for every opportunity to apply that belief to his work.
It seems that when Father Sauval made his request, Bourassa met the proposed opportunity with mixed feelings. Certainly the scale of the project would make this Bourassa’s largest work. But Bourassa realized that he was getting old for these sorts of things. He was in his late sixties. Did he have the energy for such a huge commission? Would he be able to see it through?
What may have made the difference: Bourassa deeply admired the parish’s efforts to preserve French-Canadian values and culture in America. He wanted to be part of that process. He agreed to take on the job.
On January 24, 1892, Father Sauval announced his project. Five months later he acquired a large, perfectly sited plot of land on South Main Street that faced South Park. The cost: $19,000. To defray part of that cost, Sauval “sold” one-foot squares of that property for $5 each to parishioners.
The church would be huge. It would be 277 feet long, 122 feet wide, with a 90-foot high ceiling. (Different sources give slightly different measurements.) It would cover 47,752 square feet and seat 2,300 people.
Father Sauval had envisioned an additional purpose for his new church. It would serve not just parishioners, but also religious pilgrims from near and far. His prime inspiration: the church at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre. Just east of Quebec City, this shrine – even in the late 1800s – attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims yearly, many in hope of a cure for whatever affliction they might have. (In the 20th century Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre averaged over a million visitors a year.) Fall River’s St. Anne, Father Sauval
hoped, would become as famous and successful as Beaupre’s. It would attract the many immmigrant Catholics who now lived nearby in New England and New York State and for whom a trip to now-distant Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre would be an ordeal.
In June 1893 Father Sauval put Bourassa’s church plans on display. The highlight may have been an exquisite line drawing of the church facade. (According to the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec and its definitive archives of Bourassa’s works, the date of this drawing was 1894, but that may be incorrect.)
Father Sauval also asked Bourassa to draw up blueprints for a new rectory. The structure was quickly erected on the corner of Main and Middle streets.
Architecturally this was a bad idea. Once the church was built, it became obvious that the red brick rectory was so close to the church that it seemed to crowd it, blocking the view of the building’s impressive profile. (This may be because the pastor and the architect had briefly considered placing a pedestrian square in front of the church, with the church’s structure set farther back. It would have been well behind the rectory.) Also, the rectory’s Victorian design and red brick color clashed with the church’s bluish-gray exterior and partially Byzantine style.
Briefly used as a rectory, the brick structure eventually became a boys’ “commercial” school that stressed business skills and it was later put to other uses. It was demolished in 1931, creating a more pleasing, unobstructed view of the church.
Bourassa was also consulted on the proposed Park Street convent. The structure would house the Dominican sisters who taught at the parish’s schools, and would also serve as both an elementary school and high school for girls (Dominican Academy). In the mid-20th century, this structure would house over 100 sisters, most of whom grew up in the Southern New England area. (The founding group of Dominican sisters had come from Kentucky.) Later it became, in part, a retirement facility for elderly nuns.
For whatever reason, Bourassa’s architectural ideas for the convent were largely rejected. (The convent’s chapel may retain some of his concepts, though.) The building was completed in 1895.
All this construction must have astonished the citizens of Fall River. The church’s basement, the convent, and the rectory were all being built at roughly the same time. Very preliminary planning also began on St. Anne’s Hospital. It’s to Father Sauval’s credit that he was able to juggle so many initiatives at once – and be the pastor to a large congregation.
Once finished, the new church’s basement, with a temporary roof and built by about 50 workers, became the parish’s provisional church. It opened on October 6, 1895. The cost: $75,000.
Little did Father Sauval know that the seemingly unstoppable momentum toward building one of the great churches of New England would suddenly stop. But late in 1895, it did.
PUTTING PLANS ON HOLD
With the convent and rectory completed, the Dominican priests, brothers and sisters – who had been living in smaIl, inadequate wooden structures near the old church – finally had more substantial housing. The new basement church would, for now, serve the congregation’s needs. It was time to erect the upper church.
But certain issues had to be resolved first. Despite the generosity of parish donors and income from parish fundraising events, the church project was incurring a heavy debt. Father Sauval insisted that future donations from his still-growing congregation, school tuitions, and donations from visiting pilgrims would pay off this debt within a reasonable number of years.
Bishop Harkins wasn’t so sure. If these incomes didn’t meet projections, he worried, the Dominicans might simply leave, saddling the diocese with debts. And what about the city’s “poor and unemployed?,” he asked?Shouldn’t money go to them, “not to a huge Church? We must share their poverty,” Bishop Harkins wrote. Another reason for his concern: St. Anne would set a precedent for other large, growing parishes in his diocese, each of which would want an equally grand church.
On this last point the Bishop was right. Fall River’s Notre Dame and New Bedford’s St. Anthony, begun a few years after St. Anne, turned out to be just as large and even more richly decorated.
What especially troubled Bishop Harkins, though, was the parish’s desire to build the upper church with marble. It’s possible that the idea had come from Bourassa, who had built his Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes chapel in Montreal with similarly colored stone. Bishop Harkins asked why the church couldn’t be constructed of less costly brick, like the rectory and the convent. Or what about granite, abundant in Fall River and used to build the lower church?
Father Sauval tried to be persuasive. He argued that an unusually impressive church was needed to attract new parishioners and pilgrims. The bishop countered that once the debt was greatly reduced, he would revisit the idea of a marble church. Until then, construction had to stop.
Were Father Sauval’s aspirations for a large, magnificent church inappropriate? Would it be seen as too grandiose? Wasn’t it simply a vehicle for French Canadians to say to the rest of Fall River, “You may think of us as second-class citizens, but see what we can build”?
First of all, accounts from that period almost always describe Father Sauval as a humble, inspiring, and spiritual man. (Indeed, he was often referred to as “le bon pere Sauval” – the good Father Sauval, not the “over-ambitious” Father Sauval). Second, a large church was justified, considering the parish’s size. Third, Father Sauval’s dream of a shrine – and the many pilgrims who would come to experience it – had plenty of historical precedents. In fact, very large church groups from out of town had already
begun to visit the old church and the new basement facility. A structure of cathedral-like proportions would attract even more pilgrims.
Finally, like architect Bourassa, Father Sauval probably felt that great art came from and reflected great faith. But he must have believed the reverse as well: great art can inspire greater faith. It is a reflection of God’s majesty. Without such thinking, the great cathedrals of Europe, the graceful mosques of the Middle East, and the elegant temples of Asia would not exist.
REGAINING THE MOMENTUM
For nearly seven years, construction of St. Anne lay largely dormant. But the parish certainly remained energetic and active, as did the city of Fall River. By 1900, 40,000 of the city’s 100,000 population were French Canadian. (St. Anne alone had 10,000 parishioners.) Their churches – some former missions of St. Anne, some not – graced the city’s ever-expanding landscape. Those already constructed experienced continuing parish growth.
In the meantime, Father Sauval continued to communicate with Napoleon Bourassa in Canada. The architect was hardly pleased with the hiatus that church authorities had imposed on the project. His letters reflect his frustration. He continues to worry that he might be getting too old for such a demanding project. He makes passing reference to requests for cost-cutting adjustments in the building plans. He seems annoyed by the need to integrate electrical wiring and lighting into his grand design. (It’s possible that back in 1892 he had not anticipated the rapid advance of electricity
into everyday life.) Moreover, the lighting and electrical work cut into monies set aside for certain decorative features. And anyone who has visited Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes church knows how ornate Bourassa’s decorative work can be.
During the stalled completion of St. Anne, Bourassa did take the opportunity to work on other projects, like decorating the interior of Montebello’s Notre-Dame-du-Bonsecours, the small church cited earlier. He certainly did not remain idle.
Nor did Father Sauval. In 1900 he had the old, original church demolished. The cleared land became a playground for the Hope Street elementary school. He staged “bazaars,” dinners, plays, retreats, musicals, concerts, and other fundraising events – some at one of Fall River’s first movie theaters, the Bijou – to help pay down the parish debt. He also tapped the energies of St. Anne’s existing parishioner volunteer societies and established several new ones.
Unfortunately, he would never see the results of his hard work. On April 30, 1901, Father Sauval suffered a stroke. He died the next day.
Fortunately, the new pastor, Father Raymond Grolleau, was as capable and supportive of the new church as Father Sauval had been. He spent many hours negotiating with diocesan officials. He must have been persuasive. ln 1902 Bishop Harkins finally gave the go-ahead to finish St. Anne Church, marble and all. The cost was projected to be $225,000, with interior furnishings (e.g., altars, pulpit, communion railing, pews, organ, and other furnishings) for an additional $200,000. By any scale, it was a huge
financial commitment, an act of faith in St. Anne’s future.
Part of the agreement seems to have been that unemployed but skilled parishioners be given preference for construction jobs. In effect, St. Anne became a sort of public works project for the parish.
On July 4, 1902, the building’s cornerstone was laid. Construction went on for years. Napoleon Bourassa (now 75 years old) moved temporarily to Fall River. He stayed between 1902 and 1904 to oversee the construction. A local architect engineer, Louis Destremps, was hired to work with him. This did not sit well with Bourassa. Bourassa also complained about Father Grolleau’s desire to make changes and cut costs, saying that he wished he had Father Sauval back.
With so many “outsiders” interfering with his vision, Bourassa spent less time visiting the construction site, relying on a former student, Francois-Edouard Meloche, to do some of his work. Meloche was already a fairly well-known muralist who probably did the four large paintings that overlook the two transepts at St. Anne.
Bourassa was suffering from dizziness and insomnia, which also must have cut into the time he spent at the site. As soon as the church exterior was completed, Bourassa left Fall River. He would never return.
In the meantime, church officials decided that the Providence Diocese’s Catholic population had become too large to administer properly. In 1904 Fall River became its own diocese, one that covered the area between the Rhode Island border on the west, Cape Cod to the east, and Taunton to the north. Rumor had it that St. Anne would become the diocesan cathedral. (An improbable event, since the Dominicans technically were attached to the Dominican Order in France and, later, that of Canada.) Bishop William Stang became Fall River’s bishop, St. Mary’s his cathedral church.
Many design alterations occurred during the building hiatus and again during construction. Most, like postponing the purchase of bells for the towers, were made to cut costs.
The exterior, however, remained fairly close to its original design. The only significant change had to do with statuary. St. Anne’s facade and its transept exteriors have niches that were supposed to hold statues. These niches were never filled. Only two statues grace the facade. The first, the Good Shepherd, is just above the main door; the other, of St. Anne, is higher up. A gift from the Proctor, Vermont marble company that provided the construction stone, this statue of St. Anne is much larger than it appears
from street level. It’s 9 feet high and weighs 9,000 pounds. An arch over it spells out the Latin words Ora Pro Nobis, which translates as “Pray for Us.”
To save money, the upper church’s interior decoration was simplified. One possible alteration involved the side aisles. Above these aisles are crossbeam constructions, pierced by two small window-like frames flanking a larger one. The smaller ones support bowl-like structures, while the large, central ones are empty. A corbel projection extends out on both sides of each central frame and seems to be a platform for something that’s not there. (A corbel is a bracket of stone that projects from a wall
or other surface.) Had Bourassa intended to place statues here, too? Perhaps. The spaces do seem strangely empty. Yet there is no indication of statues there in his drawings.
Unfortunately, those of Bourassa’s archive documents that have been analyzed shed little light on what compromises took place between 1895 and 1906. The answers to these and other questions may lie in the vast collection of Bourassa’s letters at Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, some of which have never been examined.
Two other unusual features are within the interior transepts. (Transepts are the “arms” of a church’s cross-shaped design.) Each transept features a balcony and pews that provided extra seating when needed. (Balconies along the nave – the main part of a church – are common in European churches, but they’re rarely found in transepts.) Also, four huge religious paintings cited earlier decorate the transepts. They portray the nativity of Jesus, the presentation of Jesus at the temple, St. Catherine of Siena’s
divine espousal in heaven and St. Dominic’s vision of Mary. (St. Dominic founded the Dominican Order.)
Sadly, water seepage has begun to destroy one of the paintings. For many years an additional, fifth mural decorated the wall above the larger chapel, off the ambulatory behind the main altar. It was either painted over or discarded during a 1960s remodel.
Also there was the matter of furnishings. It seems that Bourassa’s preliminary ideas for the altar and other major ecclesiastical structures were rejected. Instead, the parish commissioned extremely ornate, white-painted wooden altars, a matching communion rail and an intricate pulpit.
The pulpit was originally situated not at the front of the church, but well into the nave, next to the large, northwest corner pillar complex that helps support the huge arches above it. Why there? In a time when sound systems did not exist, it was necessary for a preacher to be centrally located to be heard by everyone. When loudspeakers were later introduced, the pulpit was moved forward, just behind the northeast end of the altar rail. Some of the white-painted woodwork used for the original furnishings remains on the facing of the two transept balconies, as well as on the facade of the choir loft.
The main altar, unlike those of today, was situated well into the sanctuary and a good distance from the congregation. It sat atop a high, staired platform. It featured detailed carvings, complex woodwork, decorative lighting and four large angels holding up candelabras. All that’s left of that altar is a carved panel of the Last Supper that currently decorates the monastery’s dining room.
At the church’s opposite, west end, at the main entrance is a spacious vestibule. It helps shelter and insulate the church and its parishioners from the cold winter winds that often whip in from the park.
In a festive July 4, 1906, ceremony, St. Anne officially opened its doors to the faithful. A dream, conceived decades before and delayed by budgetary issues, had become real. Fall River had a new landmark, and a congregation had an inspiring new place to worship.