As the Diocese of Providence celebrates its 150th anniversary through June 26, 2022, Rhode Island Catholic is featuring profiles of the men who have served as diocesan shepherds through its history.
PROVIDENCE — After Bishop Francis P. Keough was elevated to serve as the Archbishop of Baltimore, in December 1947, Msgr. Peter Blessing was again called to serve as interim administrator of the Diocese of Providence.
In June 1948, Father Russell J. McVinney, a native Rhode Island priest appointed by Bishop Keough to serve as rector of Our Lady of Providence Seminary, was announced as the fifth Bishop of Providence.
A son of the East Bay, Russell McVinney was born in Warren, Rhode Island, on November 25, 1898. He was baptized a month later at his hometown parish St. Mary of the Bay Church. But the family did not remain in Warren for long. A short time later, the McVinney family moved to the blossoming Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Providence, where they became parishioners of Blessed Sacrament Church.
Because Blessed Sacrament then did not have a parish school, the young McVinney attended local public schools. He also attended Fr. Simmons’ School of Religion, the formal name of the parish’s religious education program. He then enrolled at La Salle Academy, graduating in the Class of 1916. He continued his studies at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Maryland; the Grand Seminary in Montreal; and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York.
He finished his education at the American College in Louvain, Belgium, when the school was reopened after World War I, and was subsequently ordained in Louvain on July 18, 1924.
Father McVinney’s first assignment in the Diocese of Providence was a temporary one, at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. He was then appointed assistant pastor at St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, where he served as a curate until 1929. He was then appointed assistant pastor at St. Edward Church in Pawtucket, as well as a teacher at St. Raphael Academy.
In 1935, he went to South Bend, Indiana, where he studied journalism at the University of Notre Dame. Upon his return, Father McVinney was again assigned to the cathedral as an assistant, while also serving as associate editor of the Providence Visitor, the diocesan newspaper.
In 1941, he was appointed rector at the newly opened Our Lady of Providence Seminary, where he remained until he was appointed on May 29, 1948, by Pope Pius XII to succeed Bishop Keough. On July 14, Bishop McVinney was consecrated the fifth Bishop of Providence, by Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, with Bishops Henry Joseph O’Brien and James Louis Connolly serving as co-consecrators. He was the first native of Rhode Islander to serve as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence.
Bishop McVinney presided during the nation’s post-war baby boom and migration of many people to the suburbs. To accommodate this growth and the shifting Catholic population, he created 28 new parishes, nearly all of them in the suburbs and burgeoning rural areas. He also oversaw the establishment of 40 new parochial schools and the addition of many new buildings for existing schools to accommodate the growing population of school-age children.
But the growing number of schools began to strain the diocese’s monetary and staff resources. When the number of schools outpaced the number of religious vocations, many schools resorted to charging tuition to provide lay teachers with fair wages.
Bishop McVinney also oversaw the building, with Catholic Charities funds, of a new hospital for the chronically ill. Our Lady of Fatima Hospital opened in North Providence in 1954 and quickly expanded into a community hospital.
To meet the physical and spiritual needs of his flock, Bishop McVinney revived the Holy Name Societies, which had been very important in many parishes between the world wars. He saw the Societies as a way to encourage a revival of the entire diocese, and the members were happy to assist him in meeting this goal.
In 1949, in a dramatic show of solidarity, more than 51,000 men took part in a Holy Name Society candlelight Holy Hour at Narragansett Racetrack in Pawtucket. During the 1950-1951 Holy Year, two other large public services were held there. On June 9, 1951, the Apostolic Delegate presided at a Eucharistic celebration attended by 36,000 women and more than 7,000 children, with an estimated 60,000 men gathering the next day for a rosary service. Also, Father Patrick Peyton preached at the Rosary Crusade held later that year at the park.
When it came to Catholic social action, Bishop McVinney was most comfortable working behind the scenes, rarely speaking out in public as chief teacher of the local Church. Early in his episcopal career, he joined the Urban League and consistently supported the long campaign to secure equal housing legislation.
Among his most ambitious endeavors, Bishop McVinney founded a diocesan order of women religious, the Sisters of Our Lady of Providence, believing that the diocese needed a religious community under its direction to meet critical needs in the areas of catechetics, nursing, childcare and social work. The society was formally established at the Hillsgrove Novitiate on September 8, 1955. In 1959, he founded the Brothers of Our Lady of Providence, a society of diocesan brothers.
With the Warwick Neck seminary becoming overcrowded by 1953, Bishop McVinney launched a drive to raise $1 million to construct a complex of new buildings. He consecrated the new seminary chapel on Aug. 21, 1957, with the Apostolic Delegate visiting Warwick the next day to dedicate it.
In response to the ecumenical focus of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop McVinney, in January 1965, established one of the first Diocesan Ecumenical Commissions in the United States. The commission published a set of diocesan guidelines for ecumenical activities and Bishop McVinney led by example, participating regularly in ecumenical services.
Despite all the growth that occurred during the early years of his episcopacy, the impact of religious and social change occurring in the 1960s precipitated a steady decline in church attendance.
The Church’s slow response in combating the evils of American society during these times caused consternation among the clergy and religious as well.
Along with a steady decline in vocations, divisions within the diocesan Sisters of Our Lady of Providence prompted the society to disband in June 1968.
The greatest sorrow Bishop McVinney may have experienced in his later years was the resignation of many priests, some of whom also left the Church. Among those who resigned their office was his auxiliary, Bishop Bernard M. Kelly, who resigned on June 14, 1971, and left the priesthood. The reason for this was his growing frustration with the attitudes and policies of his fellow bishops in responding to the problems of Church and society.
Bishop Kelly became the second auxiliary to serve with Bishop McVinney following the death of Bishop Thomas F. Maloney on Sept. 10, 1962.
On August 10, 1971, two months after the resignation of his auxiliary, Bishop McVinney, who had been in declining health for some time, succumbed to a heart attack while at the bishop’s summer residence in Watch Hill. He was 72.