The decision to open the diocese’s observance of the 150th anniversary of its establishment by holding a ceremony in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul called attention to the cathedral itself. The original SS. Peter and Paul, where Mass was celebrated on March 10, 1837, was one of the early stone churches constructed in Providence. It was poorly built and the congregation struggled to pay the masons and carpenters who built it and who later attached a lien to the building when the congregation was unable to completely pay for its construction.
Within weeks of his being ordained bishop in the now cathedral church in April 1872, Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken announced his intention to replace the then decrepit and inadequate building with a new one. While many thought that the new diocese could not afford the cost of a new cathedral, Bishop Hendricken thought otherwise. He engaged the leading Catholic architect of his day, Patrick C. Keely, to draw up plans for the new church. Rather than imagine for the site a neo-gothic building for which Keely was famous, Keely designed a Romanesque-style building that was plain and simple on the outside but beautiful and prayerful on the inside.
The cornerstone of the new building was laid in a public ceremony on November 28, 1878. The building was almost complete when Bishop Hendricken died at age 59, his body worn out by his long struggle with asthma and his efforts at fund-raising to pay for the church as construction progressed so that no one would again have a claim on it. His funeral was the first Mass celebrated in the cathedral proper. The cathedral today stands as a physical testimony to the depth of the faith and generosity of the people of the diocese over the last 150 years and as the proper focal point for the milestone anniversary’s gatherings.
Father Robert W. Hayman, Ph.D., is the archivist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and has served as an associate professor of history at Providence College.