At the beginning of the last century about 9000 Italian immigrants had settled in Rhode Island according to the Italian American Historical Society. Within 30 years that population rose above 100,000. Though the first Italians in Rhode Island settled in Federal Hill, almost from the start they began moving to other parts of the state, including Thornton, where there was a large enough community to warrant a church. It was established by the bishop of Providence in 1903 and placed under the care of the Missionaries of St. Charles/Scalabrinians. The parish was given the name of St. Rocco, the patron saint of the town in Italy where a number of those then living in Thornton came from.
The first St. Rocco Church was a wooden structure built at Clemence and Transit Streets. It served the Italian community for 48 years with daily religious services, the conferral of the sacraments, and catechetical instructions led by a group of sisters, now known as the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, who arrived in the parish in 1942.
As the number of Italians continued to grow in Thornton and the surrounding areas, it was necessary to find another piece of land to build a bigger church and eventually include with it, a parochial school and a rectory. This land was found in Johnston, Rhode Island, on Atwood Avenue, about two hundred feet from Plainfield Street, in an area surrounded by wetlands. The new church was built and dedicated by Bishop Russell McVinney on June 17, 1951. The school was built next to the new church a decade later and opened its doors on 1963.
When the liturgical reforms were promulgated in Rome after the Second Vatican Council, St. Rocco Church made the necessary changes in the church without detracting in any way from the original design of the sanctuary. A new reconciliation room was added in the former baptistery and a side entrance was built with bathroom facilities to make the church accessible to the handicapped. Some years later, the church was made fully air-conditioned and beautifully redecorated. And when the new fire code legislated by the state went into effect, over a period of time the entire parish plant was made fully in compliance with it.
When the parish began in 1903, its main concern was to assist the new Italians immigrants who were moving into the Cranston-Johnston area. For well over a hundred years, the Scalabrini Fathers faithfully served first the Italians, and then the Catholic population in the area. Recently, at the request of the diocese, the parish opened its doors to the Hispanics. These new immigrants continue to arrive in ever greater numbers into the state and into our area. As the pastoral ministry of St. Rocco Church began with one migrant group and added to it the Catholic population in the area, it continues its work with the more recent migrants, adding them to the others that are always being faithfully served. Thus the words of Jesus “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” are forever a living voice at St. Rocco Church.