After attending a conference in Providence, I extended my stay, tacking on a few additional days to roam around this historic city. As I explored some of the city’s 25 neighborhoods, I came across one of the world’s best benches, had fantastic dinners at Circe and Il Massimo, reconnected with my roots in Little Italy, and checked out the fourth-largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, at the Rhode Island State Capitol. Throughout, I was constantly reminded of the city’s founding by Roger Williams — a Puritan minister, theologian, author, and abolitionist who had been tried and convicted of sedition and heresy because of his radical notion of the concept of the separation of church and state — as a beacon of religious freedom. Dozens of churches reflect Williams’ long-ago aspirations, with their different denominations and languages. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul
The approach to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is a little sad. An uninviting sunken square fronts the cathedral. From 1878 through World War II, this public space with hexagonal pavers was a hub of activity, but that evaporated as the city center shifted and people moved to the suburbs. The city hired I.M. Pei to redesign the square in the late 1960s, but a combination of factors doomed it to failure. The city ran out of money to fully realize Pei’s vision, low-income housing went up around it, and I-95 cut off the neighborhood to the west. Despite the presence of an arresting, eye-tricking fountain, the square remains a neglected and little-visited space. However, along one side of it stands the most beautiful church in Providence.
The mother church of the Diocese of Providence was designed in 1873 to accommodate the growing Catholic population, including a huge number of Irish, that was outgrowing the small church they had, dedicated to the same two saints. Completed in 1889 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the brownstone Gothic-revival Roman Catholic cathedral features two crenelated 156’ towers that contain four church bells (representing the Four Evangelists) hidden behind louver windows and one of which bears a clock. Gold crosses cap the gables above the rose windows on the sides and front. Carvings at the capitals and spandrels include open Bibles, winged angel heads, and genie-like lanterns.
Stairs lead up to the trio of arched entrances, a feature mirrored inside in the sanctuary behind the altar and below the stained-glass rose window. The altar was crafted out of green marble from the French Alps, while the bronze tabernacle, with a small finial atop it that took 58 hours to complete, comes from Spain. Green marble also was employed for the wainscoting and the columns that lead up to pointed arches, ornate corbels, and frothy sculptures and statues. The carved wood ceiling, with its fine vaulting and ribs, features Biblical murals in the transepts. The gorgeous stained-glass windows, fashioned after antique Munich Glass, depict such scenes as the wedding at Cana and Jesus’ baptism in glorious colors; the one portraying the panicking Apostles aboard a boat in the stormy sea is particularly noteworthy, as a rather unconcerned Jesus rests horizontally, propped up on one elbow, and looking rather bored by his companions’ hysteria. In the west transept, a granite sarcophagus contains the remains of the first bishop of Providence. Added fairly recently, in 1971, the organ is one of the largest mechanical organs in North America. Combined, all of these elements create a unified and spectacular place. You may come just to visit, but you may very well end up staying for a service to enjoy it even more.
#2 Grace Episcopal Church
Just a block from my hotel, Grace Episcopal Church, with its corner location, has long been a key element in the profile of downtown Providence. I arrived on a Sunday morning at just the right time, between services, to walk around and admire the first asymmetrical Gothic Revival church in the United States, completed in 1846 by the incomparable Richard Upjohn, the architect noted for, among many other standouts, New York’s renowned Trinity Church and Buffalo’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. I happened to run into the pastor, who, by odd coincidence, was baptized in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. He stopped for a bit to share some of the church’s story before inviting me to explore further. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, Grace Church features a single tower, with clocks on all four sides and a broached spire topped by a cross. Inside, columns and Gothic arches lured my eyes up to the wonderful ceiling of blue panels and the gorgeous organ. Light streaming in from the stained-glass windows reflects brightly on the polished marble floor. It’s those windows that really make this church exceptional. Installed between 1846 and 1929, they feature stories from the Bible, including the birth of Christ, the flight into Egypt, and the tale of the wise and foolish virgins, and such symbols as the alpha and omega, the chrismon, and the agnus dei. They also include a couple of Tiffany windows as well as one of the oldest stained-glass windows in the United States.
#3 First Baptist Church
From my seat in Café Choklad, a lovely little Scandinavian café in the College Hill neighborhood, I was enjoying both a delicious snack of Swedish almond butter cake and a hot chocolate, and the view of the oldest Baptist church in the United States. Situated on a pronounced sloping street, the wood church was built in 1775 for a congregation founded by Roger Williams in 1638. With a design greatly inspired by British architects and London churches, First Baptist Church was the largest construction project in New England at the time. The multi-tiered 185’ steeple — the first Baptist meetinghouse to have one — was erected in an impressive three and a half days. Constructed in sections on the ground, each part was raised from the inside until complete. The craftsmanship is so superior that it has withstood wind, lightning, hurricanes, and winters since 1775, almost the only steeple in the city that has not fallen to these elements.
I was welcomed by a staff member upon entrance and handed a comprehensive booklet for my self-guided tour, which began in a room filled with remnants of the church’s history, including Williams’ tea kettle, whale oil lamps used in the 1830s (a dangerous source of illumination, given that the entire church was constructed of wood), and such tidbits of information like how the town’s undertaker stored barrels of rum in the church in its earlier years.
I proceeded upstairs to the main auditorium, one of the purest examples of Georgian architecture in colonial America. Forward-looking in its ambitions, the church was built to seat 1,200 people — more than an entire quarter of Providence’s population and hardly reflective of the mere 150 members at the time. Perfectly square (80’ by 80’) and symmetrical, the space reflects the plain style of New England meetinghouses of that era. White walls, clear windows, and a lack of ornamentation keep the congregation focused without any distractions. Despite this stripped-down version, there’s still plenty to admire: the fluted columns with broad caps, each hand-carved from a solid oak tree; the balcony; the sounding board above the pulpit; the swan’s neck pediments over the doors; and the Palladian window, which harbors a little secret.
Egality was not exactly a concern in the early days. Until the 1930s, the pews on the main floor were rented or purchased by families and individuals. The wealthiest purchased the pew boxes in the front middle section, where little drawers under the seats were used for storing personal items, such as gloves or Bibles; those not so financially fortunate were able to sit for free in the balcony, a little farther away from God.
Later additions include a Waterford crystal chandelier (first lit by candles, then gas, and eventually electricity), a large pipe organ (Baptists didn’t use musical instruments during their services at the time of construction, the first being a cello in 1804), and the secret of the Palladian window. Between the louvers, I was able to detect little glints of color, the only such instance in the entire church. A stained-glass window had been added, but it was subsequently hidden behind louver slats because it didn’t adhere to the simplicity of the rest of the church.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places six years later, the church still serves as the site for Brown’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies, which have been held here since 1776.
#4 St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
I was spending some time strolling around the wonderful campus of Brown University, established in 1764 as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In the midst of the university’s purpose-designed buildings and other buildings it has purchased and incorporated into the campus over the decades stands St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Richard Upjohn struck gold again with this church, completed in 1862 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places 111 years later. The Gothic Revival structure features a wonderful corner tower, added in 1900. Reaching a height of 93’ (half of what Upjohn had originally planned), the tower is capped by four pinnacles and a conical copper spire, turned verdigris green. Carved into the oak doors at the main entrance that were added in 1928, St. Stephen proudly stands holding a book and a pile of rocks that symbolize his martyrdom.
Inside, stop to admire the beauty of the nave, with its pillars, rafters, and plaster arches that look like carved stone. The impressive windows throughout, including one by Tiffany, include the Marriage Window (depicting the wedding at Cana), a rose window heavy on blue and red depicting the Vine of Life with grapes and pomegranates, and windows portraying Mary Magdalene and an angel at Christ’s tomb on Easter Sunday morning, Moses, and the archangels Michael and Raphael.
Many of the fittings and elements have been gifted and bequeathed to the church over the decades, like the Stations of the Cross carved in Switzerland, the white marble baptismal font that is a replica of a holy water stoup from a cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, the statue of St. Stephen carved in French limestone, and a 12th-century relief of St. Nicholas, carved in alabaster and framed in marble, raising to life three murdered children whose bodies had been hidden in a pork barrel. A heavy use of oak can be found in the pulpit, rood screen, choir stalls, high altar, and altar rails. The oak reredos contains 17 painted panels depicting the likes of the Madonna and child, the three magi, and saints Stephen, James, Ambrose, and Paul, among others. Above the altar, the painted ceiling features gold stars against a blue background, a design that originally covered the ceiling of the entire nave as well.
St. Stephen’s greets you not only with a beautiful design, but also a beautiful message, welcoming you to visit, or to stay for a service, or to make it your home church, or to simply be remembered in your prayers if you belong to another church. That broad sentiment would certainly have pleased Roger Williams.
#5 Church of the Holy Ghost
The mother church of Rhode Island Italians greeted me as I entered Federal Hill, home of Providence’s Little Italy. I approached the Church of the Holy Ghost from the rear, attracted by its tall bell tower with an arched loggia and topped by a gold cross brilliantly reflecting the late morning sun — something you may easily see in an Italian city. A more ornate, delicate gold cross caps the rear gable above the semicircular apse that juts out of the building. I meandered around to the front of the church. A broad staircase leads up to a large central door, flanked by two posterns. Above each, the tympanum is filled in with a bas-relief: Jesus with two angels on the left, the Madonna and child with two angels on the right, and Christ with the Twelve Apostles in the center. The main door is capped by an ogee arch with crockets and a cross. Above it, a wonderful wheel window occupies the upper section before leading to the gable roof, with three spired open canopies each sheltering one statue. Completed in 1909 after eight years of construction, the church was established to serve the spiritual needs of new Italian immigrants, and now it serves the needs of immigrants from different lands as well.
- Central Congregational Church (1893)
- St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church (1864)
- Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church (1925)
- First Unitarian Church of Providence (1816)
- First Universalist Church (1872)
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