Church of St. Peter the Apostle (Campus)
The Unitarian church and the old Methodist church have steeples that pierce the skyline. The Episcopal church is an artistic treasure house. The old Congregational church, full of commercial tenants, sits next to Town Hall. The modern Methodist church can’t be missed on your way to the supermarket. And the old Christian Science church is a gallery owned by a renowned family of artists.
The only church that casual visitors might miss is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter the Apostle. That’s a pity, because it was far and away the most important unifying force in the town’s social and spiritual life through much of the 20th century. St. Peter’s was — and in many ways still is — the heart of the Portuguese community. There’s a reason the annual Blessing of the Fleet begins here. The Rev. Leo J. Duart, pictured above, was an ambitious parochial leader, responsible for the construction of a parish hall and a school in the 1950s. Separate entries will cover the old and new churches. This entry concerns St. Peter’s campus generally, before and after a fire in 2005 that destroyed the church pictured in the post card above.
The first Roman Catholic house of worship in Provincetown was a structure known as Snow’s Block, which is still standing at 119 Bradford Street. It was purchased by the Rev. Joseph Finotti in the winter of 1853-54 and used until 1871, a time when the Irish majority among the Catholic population was giving way to the Portuguese. The congregation moved to Adams Hall and then to the newly completed King Hiram’s Lodge. On 25 March 1874, The Provincetown Advocate reported that “the Catholics have bought the land known as ‘Parker’s Plain’ on which they are to erect a church.”
“Parker” was the Rev. Samuel Parker, pastor of the Old White Oak Meeting House (also referred to as the First Congregational Church, and later used as a Presbyterian Church) at what would now be 1 Mozart Avenue. With the completion of the church and its dedication in 1874, the Parish of Provincetown was canonically erected. Provincetown had been, until 1872, directly under the Diocese of Boston (not yet an archdiocese). Then it was moved under the newly created Diocese of Providence, with which it remained affiliated until the creation in 1904 of the Diocese of Fall River. Technically speaking, the Bishop of Fall River, not the Parish of St. Peter’s, is the owner of church property in Provincetown.
The two campus maps at right show St. Peter’s at the time of Father Duart’s pastorate (top) and as it is now (bottom). In the earlier plan, the church building fronts directly on Prince Street. Next to it, a rectory was constructed in 1886, financed by proceeds from the sale of 119 Bradford Street, which had been retained as a pastoral residence and community hall.
For nearly 70 years, there weren’t many big changes. Then Father Duart got to work. In 1953, the Parish Hall was constructed, financed with money saved by Father Duart’s predecessor, the Rev. John A. Silvia, whose hope it had been to build such a space. In 1956, a complete renovation was begun of the church itself. In 1957, Frank A. Days donated his home at 20 Court Street for use as St. Anne’s Convent, a home for the nuns needed to open a parochial school, which Father Duart had dreamed of doing since assuming the pastorate. The $285,000 school was dedicated 8 October 1967. But it lasted only four years, victim of economic, religious and social forces even larger than Father Duart’s overly optimistic projections about the Portuguese population. The building is now the Hiebert Marine Laboratory of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, 5 Holway Avenue. In 1985, the church (or, rather, the Bishop of Fall River) acquired the house at 3 Mozart Avenue from Donald R. Edwards and began receiving income from renting it to residential tenants.
The most consequential and traumatic event of recent decades occurred early in 2005. Despite the efforts of firefighters, some from as far away as Harwich and some whose families had worshiped at St. Peter’s for generations, an early-morning fire in the church all but consumed the old structure, though it spared the nearby rectory. (“St. Peter’s Destroyed by Fire,” The Provincetown Banner, 25 January 2005.) For more than three years, Masses were celebrated in the parish hall, which was outfitted as a sanctuary, as shown in the photo at left. An important detail revealed in the picture is the tabernacle, one of several precious religious objects that firefighters were able to rescue from the burning building. The church bell, forged during the pastorate of the Rev. Thomas Elliott in 1887, was cracked beyond repair. It was placed in front of the parish hall.
Catastrophic as it was, the fire gave St. Peter’s pastor, the Rev. Henry J. Dahl, a chance to rethink the campus. Key to this was the lack of convenient parking for parishioners who were far likelier to drive to Mass than walk. The architect, Thomas Palanza, proposed creating a large parking lot in what had been St. Peter’s front yard and building the sanctuary behind that. The Historic District Commission chairman, John Dowd, urged that the church front on Prince Street. But Father Dahl said that with the parking lot out back, as it had been, no one came in or out the front door.
Father Dahl and Palanza also proposed moving the rectory closer to the new church, a process shown in the photos above and below, which also opened up room for parking.