PROVIDENCE — If history had taken a different turn in 1844, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence would have recently celebrated its 175th anniversary instead of the 150 years of existence that it is marking this year.
In 1843, when the Diocese of Boston — which had encompassed all of New England — was split to make it easier to serve the needs of the growing population of immigrants, the Holy See designated Hartford, Connecticut, as the See City of the newly created diocese, which included the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The first bishop of Hartford, formerly Father William Barber Tyler, a native of Vermont and a convert to the faith who had served as a priest in the Diocese of Boston, was installed as shepherd of the new diocese in Holy Trinity Church, Hartford, on Sunday, April 14, 1844.
At that time, Hartford recorded about 13,000 residents, with about 500-600 of those identifying as adult Catholics. The Mother Church of the Diocese, Holy Trinity Church, also carried a burden of debt.
This situation contrasted less than favorably with Providence, which had a population then of about 23,000, of whom 2,000 were Catholics. And the larger of the two churches in Providence, SS. Peter and Paul, was debt free.
After Bishop Tyler consulted with Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick, the second Bishop of Boston, he informed the parishioners of SS. Peter and Paul that he planned to take up residence in Providence in a small, three-room wooden rectory behind the church, according to Father Robert W. Hayman, Ph.D., historian and archivist for the Diocese of Providence.
Two years later, in May 1846, the American bishops, during the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore, expressed their support for a change in seat as well as name of the diocese.
The following year, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith decided, with the approval of newly elected Pope Pius IX, to approve the petition for the transfer of the episcopal seat of the diocese from Hartford to Providence, although Hartford would remain as the title of the new diocese.
Pope Pius IX, who served as pontiff from June 16, 1846 to February 7, 1878 — the longest verified papal reign on record — would also be the Holy Father to sign the papal bull erecting the Diocese of Providence on Feb. 16, 1872.
It took more than 90 years from the time Catholicism took root in Rhode Island to the official creation of the diocese.
The first Mass celebrated publicly in the State of Rhode Island was the funeral of the Chevalier de Ternay, a French admiral, shortly after the French fleet arrived in Newport in July 1780 to support the American Revolution.
In July 1780, seven months after the last of the British troops that had occupied Newport for the previous two years had departed, the arrival of French General Rochambeau and the French fleet in the City by the Sea marked the first time for many Rhode Islanders that they had encountered Catholics in large numbers or witnessed any Catholic ceremonies, according to authors Patrick T. Conley, Ph.D., historian laureate of Rhode Island, and former Rhode Island House Speaker Matthew J. Smith, in their book, “Catholicism in Rhode Island: The Formative Era,” published by the Diocese of Providence in 1976.
Although the names of the earliest Catholic residents of Rhode Island have been long since forgotten, the Providence Gazette, on Dec. 12, 1789, published an account of a small number of Catholics in Providence asking a French cleric passing through the city, who called himself Abbe de la Poteries, to celebrate Mass for them a few days earlier on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
The abbe’s given name was Claude Florent Bouchard and he likely previously had served as the chaplain aboard the vessel Neptune until it docked in Boston in 1788 and he deserted the French navy and began offering Catholic services there.
The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants and the economic expansion these new workers drove served as a catalyst for the growth of the local church, although their religion and culture and pride in their native land divided these Irish-born from native-born Rhode Islanders at first.
The bishops of the Seventh Baltimore Provincial Council, in refusing to accept Bishop Tyler’s resignation due to his failing health, proposed naming Irish-born Bernard O’Reilly, vicar general of the Diocese of Buffalo, as coadjutor.
When Bishop Tyler died on June 14, 1849, of rheumatic fever at the age of 49, the diocese was without a bishop for a year until Bishop O’Reilly was consecrated the second bishop of Hartford in October 1850.
But he would serve for only six years when tragedy struck.
Bishop O’Reilly traveled to Ireland in January of 1856 to enlist the services of the Brothers of St. Patrick to serve as educators in Catholic schools in the diocese.
In a hurry to get home he boarded the “Pacific,” a ship out of Liverpool. But he never made it home as the ship and everyone aboard were lost without a trace in the winter seas.
Francis Patrick McFarland, a Pennsylvanian of Irish descent, became the third bishop of Hartford and guided the diocese through the Civil War era. It was Bishop McFarland who suggested dividing the rapidly growing Hartford diocese in 1869, while in Rome for the First Vatican Council.
Although his own health was declining then, he would agree during a meeting with the bishops of the Province of New York in April 1871 to retain his office and move his residence to Hartford, on the condition that a new diocese be created with Providence as its seat.
The Holy See granted its approval shortly afterward, with Pope Pius IX promulgating the papal bull erecting the Diocese of Providence on Feb. 16, 1872.
Two months later, on April 28, 1872, Father Thomas Francis Hendricken was consecrated as the first bishop of Providence.