It is said that every man has a natural desire to do three things: plant a tree, write a book and father a child. The particulars of the proverb aside, the point is that every person yearns to leave behind something of permanent value when he departs the earth. Bishop Thomas Francis Hendricken, first Bishop of Providence, certainly accomplished that goal - in a glorious Cathedral and in a spiritual heritage that lives on even now, 120 years after his death.
The life and ministry of Bishop Hendricken are again in the spotlight as we prepare to return his earthly remains to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul during a solemn ceremony on Friday, December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Previously, Bishop Hendricken had been buried in a crypt in the basement of the Cathedral along with five other bishops who had served the local Church. Now he will be interred in a beautiful new sarcophagus of green granite in the main body of the Cathedral, underneath the stained glass window that depicts, fittingly, Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.
The future bishop, Thomas F. Hendricken, was born in the town of Kilkenny in Ireland on May 5, 1827. After studying at St. Kieran's college in Kilkenny, he entered the seminary at Maynooth and considered the possibility of serving as a missionary in China or Japan. During his time at the seminary, though, he met Bishop Bernard O'Reilly of Hartford who was visiting Ireland, recruiting seminarians and priests to work in the new Connecticut Diocese. The bishop persuaded the young Hendricken that America was also mission territory and desperately needed the ministry of priests. Hendricken agreed to come to America and was ordained a priest for Hartford on April 25, 1853.
When the new Diocese of Providence was established on January 31, 1872 Father Thomas Hendricken was named its first Bishop. He proved to be an outstanding choice, responding to the challenges of the new Diocese as an excellent organizer, a tireless builder and a caring pastor, without a doubt a man of vision and faith.
In learning more about the life of Bishop Hendricken, I've found at least three interesting facts that make his life both colorful and memorable.
First is the incident that took place on board ship during his voyage to America to begin priestly ministry here. While on the ship at sea, Father Hendricken disobeyed the orders of the vehemently anti-Catholic captain, by crossing from cabin class to steerage to minister to a poor, dying Irish woman who had asked for a priest. The captain, infuriated by the action, had the young priest beaten, arrested and locked his cabin. Father Hendricken was in imminent danger of being thrown overboard and was saved only by the threat of mutiny by sympathetic passengers.
Second is his friendship with and tutelage of a youngster named Michael McGivney, later Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus. Father Hendricken was the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury, Connecticut where he met the McGivney family. Father Hendricken, described by one author as "a young dynamo of unswerving faith" was a role model for the young Michael McGivney and in 1868 personally accompanied him on a train to Canada where he enrolled in St. Hyacinthe Seminary. In the life and ministry of Father Michael McGivney and in the wonderful work of the Knights of Columbus, Bishop Hendricken's impact extends throughout the United States and beyond.
And the third notable element of his life, the one most relevant to our current project, is his commitment to build a new Cathedral for the fledgling Diocese of Providence. Despite the initial resistance from some parishioners, even some of his close friends, the challenges of a lagging economy and his own failing health, Bishop Hendricken made the building of the Cathedral a top priority, personally collecting funds for the project during his many pastoral visits throughout the Diocese. He didn't quite live to see his dream fulfilled though, and he died on June 11, 1886. His funeral on June 16 was the first Mass celebrated in the new, not quite completed, Cathedral. At the funeral, the homilist said of Bishop Hendricken, "This good man, our brother, who has gone before us, built this majestic Cathedral. He not only built it, he gave his life for it."
In light of Bishop Hendricken's commitment to Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, and in light of his enormous impact on the Diocese of Providence and the Catholic Church in New England, it seems only right and just that his final resting place be prominent and noble.
Bishop Thomas Francis Hendricken gave us an example we should consider and follow.
As his seventh successor I am impressed by the zeal that informed his life. I am challenged by the courage that consistently marked his ministry. I am envious of the clear vision that inspired his work. And I am humbled by the heroic sacrifices he made for his flock.
You see, the real legacy of Bishop Hendricken is not in the marble and stone of the Cathedral, as magnificent as it is. His real legacy is a spiritual one of faith in the Lord Jesus and service to His Church. Bishop Hendricken, may you rest in peace. And may you continue to live through the renewed commitment of your spiritual children in the Diocese of Providence.