In the mid-90’s, my classmates and I explored the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul for the first time. St. Catherine Parish’s Director of Religious Education, Martha Capaldi, arranged a private tour for our class with Archbishop George Pearce, whose penchant for history and demure smile made him a fitting guide for inquisitive second graders. I still remember the stained-glass pixels bathed in an afternoon hue drawing my eyes upwards. The sheer size of the church elicited awe; its beauty roused wonder. The Archbishop detailed the cathedral’s monuments as microcosms reflecting diocesan history. He pointed to the floor upon which hundreds of men received sacred ordination as priests. Moving to the side altar, he disclosed the font from which countless infants were baptized; and then showed us the place where thousands more received Confirmation. Finally, he took us downstairs to the cathedral crypt, which housed the tombs of the bishops of Providence. The crypt was a fitting end to our tour, we soon learned. The lesson was clear. Cathedrals — and dioceses for that matter — exist for one reason alone: to lead us to Heaven.
Years later, the Archbishop’s lesson at the cathedral crypt resurfaced in my memory when Bishop Tobin re-entombed Providence’s first bishop, Thomas Francis Hendricken, in 2006. Prior to the cathedral liturgy, Hendricken’s body made a “pit stop” on Warwick Avenue at our high school, which still bears Hendricken’s name. That morning, my classmates and I received another instruction, distinct in narration, but essentially the same as recounted by Archbishop Pearce. Hendricken’s entire priesthood served the same purpose as the cathedral and diocese: to get people to Heaven. School Chaplain Father Marcel Taillon recounted for us that Hendricken risked his life for the salvation of one soul. During a tumultuous voyage at sea, all priests — Hendricken included — were forbidden from celebrating Catholic sacraments. When a dying woman requested Extreme Unction, Hendricken unhesitatingly administered the “last rites” of the Church, thus placing himself within the captain’s ire. Hendricken faced death at sea — a penalty only circumvented by a minister who pleaded for clemency on his behalf. Ultimately, Divine Providence intervened. Hendricken arrived safely in America, and became the founding bishop of Providence. Eschewing the temptation of fear, Hendricken’s zeal propelled him forward, as he established hospitals, schools, parishes and orphanages; he feed the poor from the steps of his Fenner Street residence, ministered to the sick, and began construction on his final legacy, the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. Each priestly act thus paved the way to Heaven.
One hundred and fifty years later, Hendricken’s life, and the cathedral he built, instruct us anew. We’re made for Heaven. And just as the Lord saved Hendricken from the turpitude of wicked men at sea, so too does He protect us each day from the ambient storms in our lives by the ministrations of His grace. He has a plan for us, too. He continues to call men and women from all walks of life to encounter the wonder of His majesty, and so lay down their lives in service to Him and His Church. This weekend, Hendricken’s successor, the eighth Bishop of Providence, Thomas Joseph Tobin, will give us another perennial lesson as he leads the flock entrusted to his care in the celebration of the sacred liturgy in thanksgiving for our sesquicentennial anniversary. The cathedral, in all its grandeur, and the diocese for which it exists, still call us to “seek that which is above” (Cor 3:1). May Providence lead us safely home to Heaven.
Rev. Nathan J. Ricci, J.C.L., is the Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Providence, Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, and Theological Adviser to the Rhode Island Catholic.