WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Swing open the heavy doors of this twin-spired former Roman Catholic church on an ordinary city street some Sunday afternoon, and enter a museum that takes your breath away.
Elegant and intricate fresco murals soar across the barreled ceiling and along the walls of the nave, above the sanctuary and alcoves, and the choir loft. Scenes from Bible stories, and religious figures, saints and sinners, angels and devils, nearly glow from the frescoes’ warm pastel colors, painted in the style of the Italian High Renaissance.
Years ago, Yankee Magazine dubbed St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center as the Sistine Chapel of America, and that’s no exaggeration. The former church, which is actually larger than the Sistine Chapel in Rome, is home to the largest collection of fresco paintings in North America.
Its place here in this working-class city on the northern edge of Rhode Island, away from the tourist meccas of Providence and Newport, can make visitors feel as if they’ve discovered an incredible treasure.
“That’s why we say it’s the best-kept secret, and the worst-kept secret, too,” said Joe Petrucci, a docent and volunteer. “Because it’s a wonderful gem, but not a lot of people know about it.”
Along with the stunning frescoes, there’s the rich color and depth of 40 stained-glass windows made by artisans in Chartres, France, and the hand-carved marble altar and the marble stonework imported from Carrara, Italy. Outside, the church’s twin 165-foot cupola towers resemble those of the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré outside Québec City, and have been an integral part of Woonsocket’s skyline for a century.
But for the keepers of St. Ann, what makes the former church so distinctive to the city of Woonsocket is how an artist immortalized its residents in the frescoes.
Guido Nincheri, an Italian-born artist considered the Michelangelo of North America, painted these ordinary people into his extraordinary artwork. The mill workers, the mischievous children, and those lost in World War II, and other residents were models for the 475 faces painted into the frescoes.
“Aside from the incredible, amazing art and the architecture, the stained glass and the marble work, my favorite part is the story of how it came to be. It’s a part of my heritage,” said Dominique Doiron, St. Ann’s executive director and Woonsocket native, who was a parishioner until the church closed in 2000. “Especially in such a time of turmoil, to be able to look at something and go, What if we all just got along? Look at the great things that we can accomplish together.”
Roll back the calendar more than a century, back when Woonsocket was nicknamed “Le Petit Canada” for its large population of French-Canadians, who’d arrived in the city to work in the mills. This church on Cumberland Street, which opened in 1918, was the second French-Canadian parish in the city.
The church was the social hub for its hardworking parishioners, and there were seven Masses on Sundays, standing room only, Doiron said. Though they were poor, the parishioners pooled together their own meager funds for the construction of their church, and later, for its beautification.
“Even though they didn’t have the money, they decided to really honor that which they worshiped. This was their way of sacrificing and honoring that tradition, that spiritual part of their lives,” Doiron said. “And to accomplish something like this on this scale with just nickels and dimes is still mind-boggling.”
While the architecture was beautiful, there wasn’t enough money to complete the interior, so the gray stucco cement walls weren’t plastered. That would turn out to be a lucky accident.
In 1925, the 35th anniversary of the founding of the parish, the parishioners raised money again to install 40 stained-glass windows, made in Chartres, France.
During the Great Depression, the priest leading St. Ann’s still wanted to do something about those plain walls. the Rev. Ernest Morin visited different churches throughout Rhode Island for ideas, and ended up at St. Matthew Church in Central Falls, where Nincheri was painting.
Nincheri had been knighted by Pope Pius XI as one of the great artists of the Roman Catholic Church and would win four papal awards for his work. He’d studied the Old Masters style in Florence and apprenticed in stained glass in Montreal.
Nincheri had immigrated to Canada and later moved to Rhode Island, where he was working on churches and public projects. Morin invited him to visit St. Ann’s.
“As soon as he walks into the building, the first thing Nincheri notices is, Oh my God, the walls and ceilings aren’t plastered,” Doiron said. “Now, he’s getting excited, because this is a rare opportunity to do the fresco style.”
Buon fresco, “good fresh” in Italian, is a painting technique that involves painting color pigment mixed with water directly onto a thin layer of wet fresh lime mortar or plaster. As the paint is absorbed by the plaster, the color pigment is embedded into the walls or ceiling, leaving colors that are more vibrant and more durable than oil. The technique, which reached its height in the Italian Renaissance, requires that an artist is both careful and quick, because there is no room for error.
At this, Nincheri was a master.
He explained the possibilities to Morin, how Michelangelo had painted the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and he could do the same here, at this busy Woonsocket church. They settled on a contract for $25,000 in 1940.
Morin died before the work began 1941, and because of disruptions in supplies caused by World War II, it would take Nincheri about seven or eight years to complete the frescoes. He hired a crew of assistants, and scaffolding was erected in the church for years, so Nincheri could reach the ceiling 65 feet high.
The scaffolding had to be adjusted for Nincheri, who had a hunchback and couldn’t lie flat to paint. He was committed. The church was his canvas, and its parishioners were his models.
Nincheri told a reporter for the Woonsocket Call newspaper that St. Ann’s would be “America’s most beautiful church.”
As Nincheri began the work, he studied the faces of people in the community.
A lot of the mills in Woonsocket had reopened for the war effort and were making the boots, blankets, and other items for the military, so there were mill workers. St. Ann’s had a school. Nincheri was staying in Woonsocket and watching people on his walks to and from the church.
“All of the faces were people of the parish and people of the city of Woonsocket at the time. He would always be on the lookout for a face that would fit a particular subject, and he would invite them to sit for him,” Doiron said. “And what we now have here is a scrapbook, a pictorial history of who we now call the ‘Greatest Generation.’”
The two most mischievous boys in St. Ann’s seventh-grade class were painted as devils in the Last Judgment scene. “We tell people they’re in the state Legislature now,” Petrucci joked.
A nun who taught music and played the piano in a classroom where Nincheri sketched out his drawings was the model for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
Mildred “Millie” (Savoie) Tellier, who grew up to be a nurse, was the model for the child Virgin Mary. Victor Vekeman, a Belgian immigrant and printer, playwright, and actor, was the model for St. Joaquin. Vekeman’s granddaughter is on the cultural center’s board of directors.
Alphonse Lavallee, St. Ann’s janitor, was the model in a painting of Jonah and the whale, and as Abel, Adam, and King David.
The face of Marguerite Forget, a teenager with soulful eyes, appears 40 times inside the church, representing the angels of faith, hope, and charity.
And, to commemorate the memories of those killed in action during World War II, Nincheri painted two murals at the back of the church. One shows the soldiers on the battlefield, the other are sailors lost at sea. Nincheri painted their faces from the photographs of local soldiers who died during the war.
By using the local people as his models, Nincheri’s magnificent paintings also gave these working-class parishioners a sense that this magnificent church truly belonged to them.
“As much as I love going to the Newport mansions, you know, who gets to have their portraits done? It’s always been the wealthy,” Doiron said. “All of a sudden, we have the everyday person having the opportunity to have their portrait done and be immortalized. Not just the powerful. Not just the wealthy, or the influential. The everyday, common person.”
And so, in 2000, about a half-century after Nincheri completed his masterpiece, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence decided to close St. Ann’s and combine parishes, it was the everyday people who banded together to save their church.
They created a nonprofit corporation — the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center — and the diocese agreed to lease the building. In 2007, the diocese turned the building over entirely to the nonprofit.
The cultural center now hosts tours and special events, run by the dedicated group of volunteers, eager to share the church’s history and beauty.
“I’ll tell people about it. I’ll show them pictures. And they still don’t believe until I can finally get them to walk through the door,” Doiron said. “And then, I don’t have to say anything else, because she sells herself.”
St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center is at 84 Cumberland St., Woonsocket, R.I. Season opens April 30 with “Breakfast with the Saints,” from 8 to 11 a.m. Tickets $20 in advance, $25 at the door, $10 for ages 6-12, 5 and under are free. St. Ann’s is open for tours Sundays 1-4 p.m. through November; admission $15, students and seniors $12, children 4 and under are free. Available for private events and weddings. For more information, e-mail StAnnArtsCtr@aol.com or call 401-356-0713.
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.