200820ind history

In 1899, members of the Union Gospel Mission took advantage of donated land to have this building located at 145 Phillips St. in North Kingstown constructed for its congregation. For most of the last five decades, it had served as home to the dental practice of Jay Shehan and Cal Pierce, who recently sold the property.

Over the years, we have examined a number of old church buildings that have been repurposed, giving them a new life after they no longer can be of service to their congregations. We’ve seen churches that have become homes, senior housing complexes and even a warehouse. But today we will be taking a gander at a building that was a Church, not once, but twice, not to mention a laundry and a popular dentist’s office.

This utilitarian looking building was raised up in early 1899, by the local members of the Union Gospel Mission on land donated for this purpose by wealthy textile mill owner Oscar A. Steere. The Steere family was also the primary benefactors of this fledgling congregation, and summered nearby on what is now Loop drive. The Union Gospel Mission movement was an offshoot of the larger temperance movement and focused on caring for and saving folks who have wandered off the right path. This congregation had been meeting here in Wickford since 1895, first in homes in the West Wickford area and then in the upper floors of a ‘”Wickford building which had been used to dispense liquid refreshments”. Finally they moved temporarily to a Coalition Corners storeroom, before building this “substantial wooden structure without special architectural ornamentation.” This local congregation called their mission the “Church of Emmanuel” to honor the first volunteer preacher here, the Rev. John Pennington of the Church of Emmanuel in Providence. The Mission continued in operation until the death of the last of its major Steere benefactors Mrs. Ella Steere, the wife of Oscar in 1923. Shortly after it closed, Oscar and Ella’s son Charles converted the Mission into a laundry which catered to local businesses and the wealthy seasonal visitors who came to Wickford. Charles passed away in 1929 and that along with the advent of the Great Depression caused the laundry to close. Eventually Charles’ widow Alice (Hillery) Steere returned the building to a use more consistent with its original purpose when she sold it in 1931 to Howard Gardiner, who quickly resold it to the local Christian Scientist congregation.

 According to a history of this congregation, the first Christian Science service in North Kingstown was held aboard the yacht “Marvel” in Wickford Cove in early 1922. Later, the small congregation held it first regular service in a home on Main Street on Sept. 22, 1922. The Mother Church in Boston formally recognized these devoted folks on August 2, 1928, at that time services were being carried out in the Avis Block. The State of Rhode Island, in turn, formally recognized them in April of 1931 and in June of that same year they purchased the little building on Phillips Street from Howard and Eva Gardiner for $10. They worshiped there for more than 36 years, surviving two major hurricanes as well as many a minor mishap. They outgrew the little church in 1967 and moved into their present home on Tower Hill Road in the latter part of that year. In early 1968, they sold the little Phillips Street church building and officially ended an era. The building itself, as mentioned, held its own through both the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. In the ’38 storm, the rear ell section was lifted right off the foundation and set down at a right angle to its original position. Sixteen years after its repair, the 1954 storm came through town and filled the church’s interior with seawater three feet deep. In both cases, the church’s dedicated communicants, with some help from the Mother Church in Boston, made things right in short order.

For the last 52 years, this twice former church has served as the home to a dental practice; for the vast majority of those years, the practices of longtime local dentists Jay Shehan and Cal Pierce who owned the building until just recently. I do recall, as a matter of fact, saying a couple of prayers there myself, when, as a young man seeing Dr, Shehan, I was awaiting word on my latest set of dental x-rays. And I bet I wasn’t the only one either.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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