By Joseph Fitzgerald
CENTRAL FALLS – After a $400,000 top-to-bottom renovation that lasted the better part of three years, the historic Abbie Francis Memorial Home and Clinic on Summit Street re-opened its doors Thursday with a new mission: providing free eye-care to students in Central Falls.
The special ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate the reopening was attended by Mayor James Diossa, residents and community leaders, and members of the Pawtucket-based Holy Sepulchre Commandery No. 8 Knights Templar, which has held the deed on the property at 93 Summit St. since 1939.
The home’s original owner, Isaac B. Lawton, a prominent Central Falls attorney, wanted to preserve the home as a memorial to his late wife, Abbie Francis Lawton, so he transferred ownership – as well as a sizable endowment – to the Holy Sepulchre Commandery with the express purpose that the house and property be used by the organization for philanthropic purposes.
Prior to renovations, which started in 2013, the clinic offered free dental care to students in Central Falls for more than 65 years. Now that the doors are open again, the focus of the Abbie Francis Memorial Home and Eye Clinic is to provide free eye care to any city student who needs it.
"The re-opening of the Abbie Francis Memorial Clinic represents a significant investment in the future of our community,” Mayor Diossa said Thursday. “The free eye-care services offered to Central Falls students is an amazing, selfless gesture that will improve the health of our youth. This is an amazing project and I'd like to thank the Holy Sepulchre Commandery for their continued generosity and their belief in our community."
Isaac B. Lawton, an attorney with offices in Central Falls and Boston, also served in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1917 to 1918. He was an active member of Masonry, most notably with his church, Holy Sepulchre Commandery and Palestine Shriners. Abbie Francis was a renowned pianist and opera singer who performed in Boston and New York. She was a protégé of Ermina Rudersdorff (1822-1882), a Ukrainian-born German soprano and daughter of violin virtuoso Joseph Rudersdorff.
On Oct. 18, 1936 – two years after her death in 1934 – Isaac Lawton donated the Abbie Francis Memorial Convalescent Home for Crippled Children, located in Springfield, Mass. to the Palestine Temple of Rhode Island.
This is one of several foundations that Lawton set up before his own death in September 1941. Other foundations include the Hodges/Lawton wing at Rhode Island Hospital, Baptist Memorial Church of Pawtucket and Holy Sepulchre Commandery, to name a few.
In 1939, he donated three-story, single-family Summit Street house in Central Falls as well as a hefty endowment to Holy Sepulchre Commandery, which has members in Pawtucket and Woonsocket.
The Abbie Francis Home was renovated in the 1940’s after Dr. Phillip McGrath, a dentist and member of the Holy Sepulchre Commandery, came up with the idea to open up a free dental clinic to help people in the community. In 1945, the first floor was changed to accommodate two dental rooms for the treatment of fluoride. It remained a free dental clinic for 67 years until the need for more expensive renovations forced its closure three years ago. The latest renovation project includes a new foundation and basement, and new electrical wiring.
Richard Picard, treasurer of the Holy Sepulchre Commandery No. 8 KT, says the focus now will be on eye care.
“The Knights Templar Eye Foundation, Inc., has been committed to preserving sight and preventing blindness since its founding in 1955,” says Picard, a resident of Woonsocket. “We have been provided funding for direct patient care, research, and education throughout our history.”
Grants supported by the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, Inc., he says, are awarded to impact the care of infants, children, and adults. The foundation also supports clinical and basic research on conditions that may be potentially preventable or correctable such as amblyopia, cataract, glaucoma, optic nerve hypoplasia, nystagmus, retinopathy of prematurity, and hereditary diseases that occur at birth or within early childhood, such as retinoblastoma.
To date over $23 million have been expended on research.
Picard says the newly renovated Abbie Francis Memorial Home and Eye Clinic will be overseen by Dr. Joseph Rowey, a Woonsocket-based optometrist who is volunteering his services and is recruiting other retired eye doctors to man the clinic.
There will be two exam rooms and equipment is expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks, he said.
“We’re hoping to have the clinic open by the end of the month,” Picard says. “We’re excited and we think the community is going to be excited.”
Original article published in the 10/19/2015 edition of The Times. Online version can be found here