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Diocese of Providence

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Co-extensive with the State of Rhode Island. When erected (17 Feb., 1872) it included also that portion of south-eastern Massachusetts which has since 14 March, 1904, been set off as the Diocese of Fall River. It thus embraces an entire state, the majority of whose population is Roman Catholic (State Census, 1905). The city of Providence was the residence of the Bishop of Hartford from the establishment of that see in 1844 (see DIOCESE OF HARTFORD). In 1847 a Brief authorizing this transfer of residence was obtained from the Propaganda.

The first appearance of Roman Catholic worship in the colony of Rhode Island was in the latter part of 1780, when the French army under Rochambeau encamped at Newport and Providence. It is known that there were several chaplains with the army who often said Mass publicly. Shortly afterwards (Feb., 1783) the colonial legislature repealed the act disfranchising Roman Catholics. The Negro uprising in Guadeloupe, which followed the French Revolution, drove several Catholic families (French) to Newport and Bristol. In Newport also about 1808 there died one Joseph Wiseman, Vice-Consul to His Catholic Majesty of Spain. The building of Fort Adams at Newport and the beginnings of the cotton-mill industry in Pawtucket brought in some Catholics to these parts in the twenties. The first priest assigned to Rhode Island was the Rev. Robert Woodley in 1828. The first land owned in the state for church purposes was purchased in Newport in 1828. During the thirties the growth was gradual and fluctuating. It was only in November, 1837, that Mass was said for the first time in Providence in a Catholic church built for that purpose. In 1842 another parish was erected in Providence, but when Bishop Tyler (see HARTFORD) died in June, 1849, there were but six small parishes in the state. The famine in Ireland (1848) brought thousands to these parts who found work in the factories, foundries, machine shops, and jewelry shops then beginning to flourish in Rhode Island. During the fifties most of the still large and important English-speaking parishes were established; several costly churches were attempted; an orphan asylum was founded; and a few very primitive schools were begun. The Knownothing Movement in March, 1855, disturbed Catholics because of threats against the convent. In the sixties the growth was appreciable but not extraordinary, and most of the congregations were in debt with very little to show for it — an evidence of their extreme poverty. When Bishop McFarland left Providence in 1872 to fix his residence at Hartford, he left behind him a poor cathedral and episcopal residence and a debt of $16,000 — so unable or so indifferent was his flock to second his admirable zeal and devotion.

Thomas Francis Hendricken, the first Bishop of Providence, was born in Kilkenny 5 May, 1827. He made his preliminary studies at St. Kieran's College, Kilkenny, which he attended in 1844, He took up the study of theology at Maynooth in 1847 and was ordained by Bishop O'Reilly of Hartford at All Hallows College in 1851. After a short period as assistant and pastor of a small parish he was transferred to Waterbury, Conn., where he proved to be a successful church builder. He transformed the parish and seemed to be equal to any financial burden. Perhaps because of this remarkable talent he recommended himself to Bishop McFarland as the man best fitted for the heavy labours that then awaited the first Bishop of Providence. He was consecrated bishop in the cathedral at Providence on April 28, 1872, by Archbishop McCloskey of New York, the metropolitan of the province. He set to work at once to build an episcopal residence and a suitable cathedral. He had no sooner begun than the panic set in. Nothing daunted, and in spite of failing health, he began a tour of his diocese to collect, and succeeded in raising some hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few years, so that when he died (May, 1886) the new cathedral was almost completed without any debt encumbering it. It was during his episcopate that the French Canadian Catholics began to come to the diocese in considerable numbers, first to Woonsocket and then to the various mill towns along the little streams of the Blackstone and the Pawtucket, and above all to Fall River. The bishop, engrossed with other things, did not realize apparently the magnitude of the problem, and his attempts to deal with it were not infrequently a cause of anxiety and pain to himself and others.

Rt. Rev. Matthew Harkins succeeded Bishop Hendricken after an interval of eleven months. Born in Boston 17 Nov., 1845, educated at the Boston Latin School, Holy Cross College, and Douai College in France, he made his theological studies at Saint Sulpice (Paris), where he was ordained in 1869. The Vatican Council took place while he was continuing his studies in Rome. Made pastor of Arlington in 1876, he was transferred to St. James' parish, Boston, in 1884, in succession to Bishop Healy of Portland and Archbishop Williams of Boston, its former pastors. On the 14 April, 1887, Bishop Harkins was consecrated in the new (uncompleted) Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Providence which had first been opened a year before for the obsequies of his predecessor. A man of wide reading, acute mind, and judicial temperament, a lover of order and method, he has devoted himself to the task of organizing his diocese. He has particularly made his own the diocesan charities. The orphan asylum begun in 1851, transferred in 1862, had always obtained a precarious income from fairs and donations, and for these he substituted parochial assessments. Through the generosity of Joseph Banigan the Home for the Aged in Pawtucket was built in 1881. Mr. Banigan also built the large St. Maria Working Girls' Home in Providence in 1894 at a cost of $80,000, and either gave in his lifetime or left by will (1897) sums of $25,000 or more to nearly every diocesan charity. St. Joseph's Hospital was begun in 1891 and the St. Vincent de Paul Infant Asylum in the following year; the Working Boys' Home began in 1897, the House of the Good Shepherd in 1904, Nazareth Home (a day-nursery, that also supplies nurses in the homes of the poor) in 1906. In Woonsocket and Newport and other parts of the diocese similar charitable institutions have been erected at the suggestion and advice of Bishop Harkins. Almost twenty parishes out of a total of seventy-nine are exclusively French Canadian, while there are a few small parishes of mixed French and English-speaking Catholics. In the last fifteen years (1911) the Italians have come to Providence and the vicinity in large numbers, so that now there are perhaps between thirty and forty thousand of them in the diocese. Two churches for the Italians were dedicated in Providence in 1910 and other smaller parishes provide for their needs in the outlying districts. The four colonies of Poles have four Polish parishes, while the Portuguese have one in Providence. One Syrian parish in Central Falls ministers to some of the Orientais in these parts.

Parochial schools are established in the greater number of the English-speaking parishes of the cities. Thus out of seventeen English-speaking parishes in Providence, nine have large and well-equipped schools; of the four in Pawtucket, three have schools; the three parishes in Newport have schools. The others are either very small or heavily in debt or unable to procure suitable teachers. Among the French Canadians, with whom the church school is a patriotic as well as a religious institution, it is rare to find a parish without its school. Religious women are usually the teachers (in ten schools, the Sisters of Mercy); in only three are there Brothers for the larger boys. La Salle Academy, a diocesan High School of which the bishop is president, obtained a university charter from the state (1910). The teachers are diocesan priests (for the classics) and Christian Brothers. It is conveniently situated in Providence. One day high school (St. Francis Xavier's Academy) and two boarding schools (Bayview, Sisters of Mercy, and Elmhurst, Religious of the Sacred Heart) provide similar training for the girls. In all there are some eighteen thousand children receiving Catholic training in the diocese.

A diocesan weekly paper, the "Providence Visitor", sanctioned by the bishop and edited by diocesan priests, has a considerable influence among the Catholics of the state. The Catholic Club for men, established in 1909, has its own home in Providence and a large and influential membership. The Catholic Woman's Club, established in 1901, has a membership of four hundred and is noted for considerable literary and social activity. Although in a numerical majority, Catholics do not exert any perceptible influence on public life. They receive their share of elective offices, the last two governors, the one a democrat, the other a republican, being Catholics. Frequently the mayors and other city officials are Catholics. There has, however, never been a Catholic judge of a superior court.

The clergy until recently was nearly exclusively diocesan. From 1878 to 1899 the Jesuits had St. Joseph's parish in Providence, but left there, as there was no prospect of opening a college. Now various small communities of men have parishes in outlying districts, Westerly (1905, Marist Fathers), Portsmouth (1907, Congregation of the Holy Ghost), Natick (1899, Sacred Heart Fathers); in 1910 the Dominicans began a new parish between Pawtucket and Providence. The Catholic population of the diocese, approximately from 250,000 to 275,000, live for the most part in the densely inhabited Providence County, only eighteen parishes, and several of them very small, existing in the four other counties of the state, while there are sixty-one in Providence county.


History of the Catholic Church in New England: Diocese of Providence, I; Chancery Records.

About this page

APA citation. Dowling, A. (1911). Diocese of Providence. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Dowling, Austin. "Diocese of Providence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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