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:
a 1885 conflict between English Canadians and French Canadians, a serious
economic recession in Canada and the resulting inability of Canada to swiftly adapt
its economy 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 pdority. 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
redbrick 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 was to his successor, Father Charles
Bernard Sauval, another of the original group of four from Lewiston, to see them
During his pastorship, from 1891 to 1901, Father Sauval embarked on a series of maior
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 redbrick 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 to 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 Engiish
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 retumed to Euope 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
proiects, 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 appropdate choice for St. Ame 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 profect 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 Beaupr6’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 redbrick 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 redbrick color clashed with the
church’s bluish-gray extedor 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 1OO 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
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
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 Dbminicans 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 poverry” 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. Fa1l River’s Notre Dame and New Bedford’s St.
Anthony,begun a few years after St.Anne, turned out tobe just as large and even more
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 newparishioners 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
First of all, accounts from that period almost always describe Father Sauval as a
humble, inspiring, and spirituai 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 pitgrims who would come to experience it – had plenty of
histodcal 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
cathedials of Europe, the gracefut 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 iargely 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 authorties
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 prolect. 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 proiects, 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
“bazaas,” 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 l9O2 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, I9O2, the building’s cornerstone was laid. Construction went on for
years. Napoleon Bourassa (now 75 years old) moved temporarily to Fall River.
stayed between l9O2 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 aheady a fairly well-known muralist who probably did
the four large paintings that overiook 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
Ieft 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 the 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
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
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 fiiled. 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. Arlne 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
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
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 maior 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 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, a congregation had an inspiring new place to worship.