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St. Joseph's Church

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1888, F. E. Page. 1303–1317 Mendon Rd.

This is the second Roman Catholic parish church in Cumberland, replacing a previous church of 1872 on the site which was established to minister to increasing numbers of Irish immigrants in the area. St. Joseph's exhibits Carpenter Gothic at its most assertive: in fact, it is perhaps the most monumental example of the type extant in Rhode Island. Pointed and wheel windows appear as simple shapes cut out of the clapboard walls. Worth special notice is the balancing of the visual impact of the tall, broach-spired bell tower at one corner of the front elevation by a shorter tower and an intermediate turret. So the seeming commitment to symmetry manages to become asymmetrical. The variety in the adornment of the towers is spirited, if a bit crude.

Inside, too, some unfortunate (if well-intended) modernization has occurred, especially in the redesign of the altar and the introduction of modern stained glass into the ground-story windows. But much remains. Instead of creating the structural wedding of parts that might be expected of a Neo-Gothic building, the Gothic revivalist often scattered traditional architectural elements as decorative pieces, in this case emphasizing the plastered, rather than masonry, quality of the interior. Skinny clustered columns in faux marbre break out in luxuriantly ornamented capitals, but the projecting moldings that frame the arcade are lifted off the capitals. The colonettes which support the vaulting cling as brackets to the plastered walls of the nave, floating the plaster vaults above the arcade rather than building from it. Above each of the nave arches are halflength figures of saints in quatrefoils against gold-leaf backgrounds; over these, tiny trefoil windows make a clerestory of sorts. A little stubby in length for its height, this is nevertheless an impressive space, and possibly more interesting for the tension between the two dimensions. Within the space, each of the elements possesses its own assertive shape, thereby continuing the play of resonant shape found among the windows on the exterior. Doubtless a darker palette and some stenciled patterning once helped to meld the pieces. Now the creamy white repainting sets them loose in the big space, and one feels the architect pasting the pieces into this belligerent yet charming expression of faith.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


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William H. Jordy et al., "St. Joseph's Church", [Cumberland, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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