Fall River and New Bedford -- so near and yet so far

  St. Anne’s Church in Fall River.

St. Anne’s Church in Fall River.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

The planned Nov. 25 closing of spectacular St. Anne’s Church, dedicated in 1906 and probably Fall River’s best known building (besides its much-disliked Brutalist city hall, which hangs over Route 195), is a reminder of the decline of churches and other institutions that were in varying degrees ethnically as well as well religiously based. These congregations, in their heydays, did much more than carry out their official religious missions. They also became social-welfare institutions, providing not only spiritual and psychological sustenance but also food and even shelter in tough times.

St. Anne’s was a French-Canadian parish, serving the many thousands of Quebecois who moved to Fall River and other New England textile- and shoe-making towns starting in the 19th Century – a migration that hit its peak in the World War I boom years. French-Canadian architect Napoléon Bourassa designed the church, with its dramatic bell towers.

Now many of the devout have died and many parishioners have long since dispersed to the suburbs or elsewhere. The priest-abuse scandals and the long decline in affiliation with organized religion in the Northeast also help explain the woes of St. Anne’s.

The church has serious physical problems, and would require millions of dollars in repairs, which apparently can’t be raised; the parish is no longer populous and committed enough to fund the work. Bishop Edgar da Cunha, who runs the Diocese of Fall River, announced that parishioners are invited to join a new “Catholic Community of Central Fall River,’’ which sounds pretty vague and diffuse.

It’s been another bad stretch for the Spindle City. Its mayor, Jasiel F. Correia II, 26, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on fraud and tax charges. This hard-charging and glitzy materialist was elected when he was 23. That means that he was far too inexperienced to run a town or city, let alone one as big as Fall River, which has a population of about 87,000. They should raise the minimum age for mayors to 30.

Over four years, beginning in 2013, U.S. Atty. Andrew E. Lelling said, Correia persuaded seven people to invest $363,690 in a startup called SnoOwl, yet another phone app.

The Feds allege that the mayor, who proclaims his innocence, illegally diverted more than $230,000 of that money. He is said to have spent the money on his mayoral campaign, travel, adult entertainment, designer clothes, jewelry, credit-card and student-loan payments, casinos and a 2011 Mercedes-Benz C300 all-wheel-drive sport sedan. This makes it sound as if he had serious lifestyle ambitions of the sort modeled by the Emperor of the Oval Office.

Fall River and New Bedford are often lumped together. After all, they’re both old textile-mill towns a mere 14 miles apart. But at least in the past few decades, New Bedford, with about 95,000 people, has generally had much abler and more visionary mayors than Fall River, most notably the current chief executive, John Mitchell, and former Mayor John Bullard.

The Whaling City has rebuilt its downtown around a cobblestoned National Historical Park and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Meanwhile, its big scallop fleet has prospered, bulk shipping has increased, and it has become a center for the wind-power industry. Of course, New Bedford was always much more of a port than Fall River. And a good number of urban pioneers (aka gentrifiers) have moved to New Bedford in the past few years, many drawn to its beautiful old houses, loft spaces and “romantic’’ (if gritty) waterfront.

While Fall River has lured an Amazon fulfillment center, a new Justice Center and SouthCoast Marketplace, it is way behind New Bedford as a happening place. That seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

  William Street, in the historic heart of New Bedford.

William Street, in the historic heart of New Bedford.

  New Bedford Harbor.

New Bedford Harbor.