By JOHN HOWELL When he learned he was eligible to retire, Father Alfred Ricci said, "yessiree." "You know when it's time to do what to do and let it go," Father Ricci said Monday afternoon from the office at St. Gregory the Great Church in Cowesett,
When he learned he was eligible to retire, Father Alfred Ricci said, “yessiree.”
“You know when it’s time to do what to do and let it go,” Father Ricci said Monday afternoon from the office at St. Gregory the Great Church in Cowesett, where he has been pastor for 24 years. Yesterday he officially retired, although parishioners at St. Gregory and other diocesan churches are likely to see him from time to time when called to fill in.
His plan for July and August is to take a breather. He wants to be there as the only child for his 93-year-old mother, who is in Brentwood Nursing Home, just down the hill from St. Gregory. He’s thinking of getting out the golf clubs that haven’t been touched for 30 years, but other than that, the horizon and the possibilities are open.
Father Ricci is a Federal Hill transplant, or more accurately a Johnston-raised Rhode Islander. His grandparents came to this country from Italy and living on Federal Hill might as well have been living in Italy. Everybody spoke Italian. But Father Ricci’s parents wanted him growing up speaking English.
“They would speak Italian when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying.”
At 8 years old, the family moved to Johnston. At the time, Father Ricci recalls, the town had a population of about 14,000 and the center of activity was the intersection of Atwood and Hartford avenues with the Town Hall and McDonald’s the dominating features.
Catholicism was a way of life for Father Ricci. The ministry was a natural extension of how he had been brought up. He attended St. Anthony School in Providence, went on to Johnston High School and, upon graduation, became a student of Our Lady of Providence Seminary at the Aldrich Mansion on Warwick Neck. He did his graduate work at St. Bernard’s in Rochester, New York.
Father Ricci was ordained 41 years ago. He served in the youth ministry at Roger Williams, Brown and URI for 10 years of his service. He found it both challenging and exciting.
“They are so full of life,” he said of the young people. Reflecting, he finds the youth of that era much more committed to issues.
Of today’s youth he says, “Being a Catholic is giving service, it’s a part of faith that is second nature to them. They’re not self-centered. This is what they’re called to do.”
But he is critical of how technology has depersonalized communications and, in his opinion, has separated us. If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, he said it has made us realize, “we do need each other.” He laments how we have become divided and blind to opposing points of view.
“It’s a war out there.”
St. Gregory has grown under Father Ricci’s tenure from 1,400 families to 2,000 today. The growth spiked with the construction of the nearby Seventeen Farms housing development. He is seeing a return of parishioners following the pandemic shutdown and online services. He believes the church will sustain about 2,000 families although he is witnessing change with young families moving out of Warwick to East Greenwich and North Kingstown. He attributes the exodus to a decline in Warwick schools.
On Sunday following his last Mass as pastor, the congregation threw Father Ricci a picnic party on the church grounds.
Michael Maynard, president of the parish council, said Wednesday it was not an event Father Ricci would have requested. He was not seeking attention over his departure.
Maynard finds it difficult to imagine St. Gregory without father.
“He has been a presence at the church,” said Maynard. He pointed to Father Ricci’s involvement in church activities whether it is opening day of the church baseball league, packing 200 holiday food baskets or building ministries. He said Father Ricci always told parishioners to be involved. “It’s our church … he keeps his eye on everything.”
One of the first things Father Ricci did upon arriving at St. Gregory was to address the parking lot in front of the church. It was a sea of asphalt resembling a shopping mall lot. It was not the image Father Ricci looked to project. Strips of planting that include low growing trees now divide the lot.
One of the most trying of times for Father Ricci was the Station Nightclub fire that claimed the lives of 100 people. Cell phone coverage was not the best at the time and Father Ricci did not learn of the disaster until the following morning. He immediately went to the site of the fire in West Warwick to minister to impacted family and friends. Being the largest Catholic church closest to the fire, St. Gregory was selected as the church for a Mass in memory of the 100 victims. The church was packed and news media from across the country was pressing to cover the service. In anticipation of a mob of reporters and photographers, Channel 12 was selected to provide “pool” coverage.
With a note of satisfaction, Father Ricci recalls telling national network crews they wouldn’t be allowed in the church and to follow the local station.
Father Ricci feels our future is in coming together. He said, “by buying into the ills of society, we keep splitting ourselves.” He sees the church as building connections and as he has practiced, Catholicism a way of life.
Father David Ricard will serve as administrator to the church said Father Ricci.