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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
This is the second article in an occasional series about Smithfield locations that have either been forgotten by time or are no longer remembered for what they once represented. The locations are selected from a list compiled by former Smithfield Building Official Al Bruno. Bruno was originally featured in the January edition of The Smithfield Times, and the first installment of this series ran in February.
Built in 1875, the original St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church occupied a parcel of land on Homestead Avenue in Georgiaville. The house of worship was created in the then popular carpenter gothic style which sought to make wood frame buildings resemble the early stone churches of Europe. According to the 1979 Georgiaville historic district nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, the structure was the largest building in the village other than the mills.
Distinguished by impressive stained glass windows, it was topped with an eight by four copper clad cross, recalls Al Bruno. Reportedly, St. Michael’s was sometimes referred to as “the Portuguese church” owing to the substantial number of residents with Portuguese heritage, many of whom came to Smithfield to work in the textile mills. In actuality it served all Roman Catholics on the eastern side of Smithfield. Al Bruno was baptized, had his first communion, and was confirmed at the old church.
Some of his earliest memories are associated with it. As a youth he played guitar for shows in the basement auditorium, and he remembers carnivals that St. Michael’s hosted in the backyard, which is now the site of Georgiaville Manor at 20 Higgins Street, a senior housing facility, the rear of which faces the empty lawn area where the church once stood (photo with Mr. Bruno).
He also tells of walking to mass on Sundays on the railroad tracks that ran from Esmond, where he lived, on northward through Georgiaville. He recounts how on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when he was 10, as he walked along the ties, a girl from the neighborhood told him that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. “Where’s Pearl Harbor,” he recalls asking her. As with many, many Americans before that ill-fated day, the Navy base in Hawaii was not a well-known place for the young Al Bruno.
The church was later deemed unsafe and replaced with the current one on Farnum Pike in the 1960s. Several years later the original edifice was demolished. By then, Mr. Bruno was the Smithfield Building official and he oversaw the demolition. He salvaged a couple of the stained glass windows, but the object he prized most was a kneeler from near the confessional. “After all, I must have spent more time on it [saying my penance] than any other kid in the parish,” he jokes.
The old photos are courtesy of The Historical Society of Smithfield. Current day photo is by Albert Tavakalov/The Smithfield Times.