Shortly after 10:30 in the morning on the seventh day of July 1872, the 45-year-old Thomas Francis Hendricken entered the sanctuary of the old Cathedral church in Providence. The Providence Visitor, venerable precursor to the Rhode Island Catholic, would not begin publication until three years later in 1875. For that reason, for an account of this auspicious occasion we rely on the word of America’s oldest Catholic newspaper— The Pilot out of Boston. The Pilot account reports that a “crowded church” had assembled for the happy July day. The Solemn High Mass marked the first time the newly consecrated Thomas Hendricken would fulfill this most sacred duty as the first bishop of Providence.
Just three months into his episcopal ministry, Bishop Hendricken conferred the Sacrament of Holy Orders on two men ordaining them as priests on a warm July morning. John Keegan and James Beaven hold the distinction as the first two priests ordained for the Diocese of Providence. Three years later, Beaven’s brother Thomas would receive ordination himself for service in the Diocese of Springfield in western Massachusetts. Two decades later he would serve as the second bishop of that see.
In the present day, 150 years later, our local church has observed our sesquicentennial celebration with a glorious visit from the Cardinal Archbishop of New York; we have heard academic lectures from noted authors; enjoyed concerts and organized social gatherings. But the most happy observance of our diocesan anniversary is this year’s ordination to the priesthood of Father Mark Gabriel Gadoury as our newest priest on June 4 in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. No Catholic can fail to recognize the reason why. Put simply, priestly ordination promises a future for the church of Providence.
During our sesquicentennial year, I have recalled that first priestly ordination for service in our diocese. The 1872 report of Boston’s Pilot guides our meditation. The newspaper report reads: “To a Catholic the ordination ceremony will never fail to be one of the deepest concern. It awakens the too often blunted feelings of the Christian that may in the lapse of busy years become encrusted with the dust of indifference.”
Indeed, from Bishop Hendricken’s first priestly ordination in 1872 to Bishop Tobin’s conferral of the Sacrament of Holy Orders this year, the ordination rite is of deepest concern to every Catholic. As Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., so often observes: “Vocations are everybody’s business.” Even if, at times, the busyness of life can give way to spiritual indifference, in a priestly ordination Catholics recognize the surest sign of God’s fidelity to His Church. God loves us. He knows we are hungry and hurting. He sends priests to feed and forgive.
Catholics see in an ordained priest another Christ, one who will act in persona Christi capitis. With every priestly ordination, God answers the desire expressed on the road to Emmaus: “Mane nobiscum Domine — Stay with us Lord.” Indeed, only because of the sacerdotal ministry — only because God continues to send priests — does Christ remain with us. He abides with us in the Sacrament of His body and blood. He is with us in the authentic preaching, sacramental ministrations, and pastoral governance of Catholic priests.
A priestly ordination is of deepest concern to every Catholic because we all need God’s mercy. The Catholic people find in the priest — and maybe especially in a new priest — a witness to God’s never-failing mercy. He keeps sending priests. He keeps reconciling the world to Himself. God never stops loving us. A new priest reminds us that God never gets tired of forgiving. In Father Gadoury, we see that after 150 years God continues to remain faithful to the people of Providence.
The Christian people need priests. We need shepherds to govern in charity. The world is divided, torn asunder by confusion, error, and sin. Some people are even confused about the dignity of every human life. God sends priests to unite people in love, to draw everyone into His family the Church. Priests are sent to remind us that everybody is a somebody. Every life has value. Everyone belongs in the Church and can receive God’s mercy.
A century and a half since their ordination, we don’t know very much about the priestly ministry of those new priests ordained first for the Diocese of Providence. We do know that their pastoral ministry continues to bear fruit in Rhode Island. The earliest sacramental records of our diocese record those they baptized and received into the Church. These were the Catholics of this state who built so many churches. Those to whom Fathers Keegan and Beaven preached the saving truths of our Catholic faith organized so much of the charitable work for which the Church is so well-known. We can only imagine how many souls departed the world for Heaven through their sacramental ministrations. All in all, these first priests of Providence ensured that the Catholic faith would continue to count adherents even to our present day.
The July 1872 Pilot observes how challenging it was to become a priest in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. The author opines: “The long years of scholastic toil…is to us seemingly herculean. We know not of the many religious duties peculiar to Seminaries; of the trials, the privations, hidden from the world, but which, as we all know, have formed, and will, to the end of time, fashion souls.”
Indeed, from 1872 to 2022 aspiring priests face obstacles: spiritual indifference, the illusion of moral relativism, a media that exaggerates fault and targets the Church unfairly, the mythology of a flourishing society without religious observance, the list goes on. None of this should surprise us, nor should it dampen our joy. After all, we have been found worthy to suffer for the sake of His holy name (Acts 5:41).
The Pilot article concludes with these prescient words: “We shall be pleased to hear from our correspondent when anything of interest occurs in the Diocese of Providence.” For 150 years so many things of interest have occurred in our diocese. God has blessed the priests, religious, and people of our state with schools and hospitals, charities, and social services. From our diocese God has drawn missionaries, cloistered religious, and bishops — successors of the apostles who have served the universal Church.
Even more than these achievements, here in the church of Providence so many people have come to meet Jesus — the God of Heaven taken on a human face. So many people — through the authentic preaching and sacramental ministrations of Catholic priests — have come to meet Christ in His Church. They have discovered friendship with Jesus who alone promises a joy beyond telling. Friendship with Him is indeed the pearl of great price.
Our hearts are full of gratitude on our diocesan sesquicentennial. Most especially, we are grateful to God for our new priest. And indeed, He sent us a good one. Father Gadoury will be a prayerful icon of Christ the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. The joy of these days belongs to his good mother, Cheryll. The Church’s wisdom praises mothers of priests. Catholic piety embraces the mothers of those who alone can pronounce the words of consecration. She and her good husband, who observed the festivities from the vantage point of Heaven, merit the gratitude of every Catholic in Rhode Island. Their good work bears fruit in Providence’s newest priest.
The recent ordination marked a particular day of joy for Father Norman Bourdon and the people of Saint Joan of Arc Parish in Cumberland. His three decades of pastoral labors in that portion of the Lord’s vineyard came to fruition as a native and favorite son of Saint Joan’s received the remarkable gift of priestly ordination. Our diocese rejoices with the people of St. Joan’s and especially with its good pastor.
No one knows what the next 150 years will be like for the church in Providence. I suspect we will face our share of challenges, not unlike those new priests ordained a century-and-a- half ago. To be quite frank, I dare say the difficulties of the years ahead may even exceed our expectations. However, ordinations awaken the sentiments of every Catholic. We recall once again God’s goodness in continuing to send shepherds after His own heart.
Rev. Ryan W. Connors, S.T.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Providence who serves as Dean of Men at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, where he also teaches full time in the Priestly Formation Program.