Bishop Tobin leaves a legacy of community outreach through diocesan ministries

It is with the words “Receive the Gospel and preach the Word of God with all patience and sound teaching,” that the consecrating bishop places the book of the Gospels over the head of the bishop-elect, which is then held by two deacons during the prayer of consecration symbolizing his role as supreme teaching authority in the local Church. The bishop then receives the crosier or episcopal staff. The new bishop is reminded of his duty to “keep watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as Bishop to govern the Church of God.”
All of this symbolically points towards the two key roles of the bishop: firstly, as one who preaches the truth, and secondly, as one who spiritually guides and protects the local faithful. These two elements intersect in a particularly profound manner whenever a bishop upholds the Church’s teachings on social justice, thereby embodying the teachings of Christ in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you do to the least of My brethren, that you do unto Me.”
In his 18 years as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin embodied these teachings as he contributed greatly to the social welfare of the Ocean State over the course of his ministry. This element of his ministry has served as a cornerstone of Bishop Tobin’s episcopacy.
“One of Bishop Tobin’s great charisms is his support for the poor and the vulnerable,” said diocesan Secretary for Catholic Charities and Social Ministry James Jahnz.
Bishop Tobin Responds to Homelessness Crisis in Rhode Island
One of the most notable and longest-lasting impacts of the ministry of Bishop Tobin were his efforts to help the homeless in Rhode Island.
Between 2007 and 2009, the number of families living in shelters nationwide increased from 131,000 to 170,000.
In 2010, there were roughly 4,400 Rhode Islanders struggling with homelessness. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of homeless Rhode Island citizens increased by 15%, and between 2020 and 2022, that number increased by 65% — including many families, veterans and young people.
In response to this dire situation, Bishop Tobin established Emmanuel House in December 2010. The founding of the Emmanuel House homeless shelter resulted from the coordinated effort of both Catholic and secular institutions. The Diocese of Providence contributed $20,000, along with an additional $5,000 from the Catholic Charity Appeal, and a $20,000 grant from the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, a homeless advocacy organization.
Besides food and shelter, Emmanuel House provides guests with other services, including assistance with health insurance, applying for food stamps, mental health and recovery support services, and finding jobs and a more permanent residence. Emmanuel House provides opportunities for guests to get involved in the general mission of the shelter, including opportunities to be appointed to management or administrative positions and to help with the community garden.
“Bishop Tobin’s support of Emmanuel House has been rock solid since day one. His care for those experiencing homelessness has been unwavering,” said Jahnz, going on to note that even after the establishment of the shelter, Bishop Tobin has regularly visited the home, thereby making “one-on-one, personal interactions with those experiencing homelessness” a major part of his approach.
Today, Emmanuel House provides an average of 19,000 bed nights per year. Emmanuel House was also one of the only day shelters open round-the-clock during the Covid shutdowns.
In addition, in 2005 Bishop Tobin founded the Keep the Heat On initiative, which is dedicated to helping the poor in this state pay their utility bills during the cold winter months.
Many schools and parishes, along with very generous individuals and corporations have steadily contributed to the Keep the Heat On fund. In his role as music director of the Gregorian Concert Choir, Msgr. Anthony Mancini, rector of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, has led the choir in “Sounds of the Season,” an annual fundraiser to benefit the program.
Now in its 18th season, Keep the Heat On has provided more than $18 million in fuel assistance to those in greatest need.
Similarly, Bishop Tobin has done much to promote the growth of the St. Martin de Porres Multi-Service Center, which has been an established part of the aging network since 1970.
St. Martin de Porres Center coordinates with more than 40 agencies in bringing services to Rhode Island’s seniors, in particular the poor and ethnic minorities, assisting them with navigating the often-complicated process of obtaining food stamps, filling prescriptions and paying utility bills.
Pro-Life Ministry
During his episcopacy, Bishop Tobin has been unwavering in his public support of the pro-life movement, something motivated by pro-abortion legislative advocacy in the General Assembly during the past few years.
“The last few years have been tough in Rhode Island, but I think it’s that way all over,” said Lisa Cooley, the director of the Office for Life and Family Ministry for the Diocese of Providence.
“There is such a divide and it only gets worse,” Cooley went on to say, noting how states where pro-choice policies are enacted into law seek to lift as many restrictions on abortion as possible, eventually creating a culture that is indifferent towards issues pertaining to life.
In addition to his frequent public pro-life statements, in 2007 Bishop Tobin approved the creation of a Rhode Island branch of St. Gabriel’s Call, a Catholic pro-life organization founded in Texas in the 1990s that provides women with unexpected pregnancies alternatives to abortion by offering emotional, financial and medical assistance.
Bishop Tobin has also attended peaceful and prayerful vigils at Planned Parenthood and events surrounding the National Day of Remembrance and the Human Life Guild Day. In 2021, the diocese donated $21,000 to the USCCB’s Walk with Mom’s in Need initiative.
Multicultural Ministry
Providing outreach to the multicultural community was also a top priority for Bishop Tobin during his episcopacy.
Bishop Tobin vehemently opposed immigration raids by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and also signed a 2008 document along with 18 other pastors in the diocese, calling for an end to surprise raids on immigrant communities.
Local Catholics feared that places of worship may be unduly targeted, as many Catholic parishes have a large Hispanic population, including recent immigrants and undocumented migrants.
Also, in 2022, Bishop Tobin presided over diocesan efforts to coordinate the resettlement of almost 100 Afghani refugees who settled in Rhode Island in the aftermath of the collapse of the Afghan government and the reestablishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bishop Tobin’s promotion of interracial harmony can be seen in his support for the Black Catholic Ministry.
Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, director of the St. Martin de Porres Center and coordinator of the diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry, noted how Bishop Tobin was supportive of the ministry from his earliest days as bishop.
“Since Bishop Tobin came to our diocese he has supported the Black Catholic Ministry,” said A’Vant Deishinni, noting that Bishop Tobin has long seen the chief goal of the ministry as strengthening the pastoral leadership within African-American communities in the diocese and increase the sense of solidarity between Catholics of African-American descent and other communities in the Church.