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The Call
Woonsocket Call newspaper article Nov. 27th 2007
French take over Church
French take over church
Genealogical Group buys Universalist church
There was a time when more than 150 church members would gather for services at the First Universalist Church at 78 Earle St.
But as is true for a number of longtime local congregations, those days of growth and support are long past.
No services have been held at the church since last June and its aging, small group of 15 remaining members has struggled to maintain the circa-1924 structure in the state it has long enjoyed.
Like so many other noted buildings in the city, the cost of upkeep raised a possibility the former Protestant church could be sold for a condominium apartment conversion, or even demolished to make way for something else.
But thanks to an agreement worked out with the American French Genealogical Society, a longtime downstairs tenant of the church, 78 Earle St. will be staying on the books as a resource available to the community.
The Genealogical Society will celebrate its recent purchase of the church during an open house this afternoon and also intends to detail plans for a Franco-American Cultural Center at the location.
In a sense, the Genealogical Society's acquisition of the church building will allow it to further expand what has become a well-used resource for its 1,400 members in the U.S. and Canada, Sylvia Bartholomy, a member and spokesman of the group, said Monday.
"We already have an excellent genealogy library and now we want to extend our resources into a center where people can learn more about French Canadian and Franco-American culture," Bartholomy said.
While the plan is still in the works, Bartholomy said the Center would offer visitors access to the Society's collection of community and Catholic parish records from Canada and Franco-American United States communities. They will also learn about French history and traditions in North America, hear the French language being actively spoken, and maybe even take French language lessons, she noted.
"We have some structural changes to make to provide handicapped access and we will be moving our library upstairs from the lower level, but we will keep much of the building as it is today," she said.
The Society was able to muster up $100,000 in donations to complete the purchase of the church and will be doing additional fundraising for the funding needed to make renovations, she said.
The American French Genealogical Society was founded in Pawtucket in 1978 by Henry LeBlond and his original group of volunteers, according Bartholomy. After outgrowing its original home in Pawtucket's LeFoyer Club, the Society move to its Woonsocket home at Earle Street in 1990. It has continued to benefit from wide ranging support from French Canadians who may never have even visited the Blackstone Valley. Many others have used the Society's collections to find long lost family history and ancestors
The Society initially worked to collect "repertoires," a type of official records journal, on all the French Canadian communities and parishes it could, according to Bartholomy.
That effort resulted in the 10,000-book collection now maintained by the Society at 78 Earle St. and used by anyone wishing to come in and research the origins of their French Canadian ancestors, she said.
While the records maintained by the Society will help someone find a relative's date of birth, marriage or death, that information can in turn be used to find more information at a city or town clerk's office, she said.
Some people have even found the records helpful in building a medical history for themselves or their loved ones, she noted.
The Society has volunteers on hand when visitors stop by to begin research in the collection of vital statistics, she said.
"After two to three visits people function very well and are happy with what they find," she said.
In recent years, Bartholomy said the Universalist congregation found it increasingly more burdensome to manage the building's maintenance and so decided to sell.
The two groups opened a negotiation, she said, and the end result was a purchase arrangement agreeable to both sides.
"They felt we would be good stewards and keep the structure intact," she said.
The planned renovations will include development of a media center in the building that will allow greater use of the Society's resources by the public, she said.
Hosting today's event will be Janice Burkhart, President of the American French Genealogical Society and Normand T. Deragon, Society vice president and building fund committee chairman, as well as Sandra Beaudry, President of the First Universalist Church.
Beaudry on Monday said the fact the church's membership was mostly in their 80s had limited the options it had for future use of the building.
"It just wasn't possible to keep it going any longer," Beaudry said while noting the costs of heating and requirements of maintenance were beginning to overwhelm the membership.
The Society had an interest in the building and its history and that made the sale a good option for the church.
"They have a large group of members and they can take care of all that needs to be taken care of, themselves," she said.
78 Earle Street is actually the second home of the local Universalist congregation, she noted.
The congregation, originally founded in 1834, built its first sanctuary on Main Street where the Beacon Charter School is located today, she noted. After relocating to Earle Street in 1924, the congregation also completed an expansion adding a new sanctuary there in 1957, she said.
The congregation hasn't had a full-time minister since Peter Hughes retired in 1999 and had its last service in the church on June 3. Hughes returned to head the service and for many of the members that was a fitting close to its many years of history, she noted.
The fact the building will continue to have community use was an important part of the decision to sell it to the Society, she said.
"I think it's going to be a very good use of the building. It's going to be maintained as a resource for the community,' she said. The alternatives would not have been as acceptable and may well have generated a sense of loss for the congregation, she said.
Now the Society will be storing the First Universalist Church records in its collections and adding the records of many other organizations in the Blackstone Valley in the years ahead.
"They felt the use was feasible and they were content with what will be happening there," Beaudry said of the members' choice of new owner for the church.
©The Call 2007

The Call
Providence Journal
Valley Breeze
Woonsocket Call newspaper article Nov. 27th 2007
Providence Journal November 28th, 2007
The Valley Breeze newspaper article Nov. 29th 2007
French take over Church
Step Up For Society
"The AFGS will fill out new facility, complete extensive renovations "


American-French Genealogical Society
Building Fund Committee
P.O. Box 830
Woonsocket, RI

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Updated 6 December, 2007

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