PROVIDENCE — That the Providence Visitor — now Rhode Island Catholic — has survived and flourished all these years can be attributed to the fact that it was founded to serve a special purpose. During its long history, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Providence has endured because it continues to give the Catholic community in Rhode Island news of their Church, to instruct them in the truths of their faith, to encourage them in the practice of it, and to defend the Church and the faith when necessary.
When the Visitor first made its appearance on October 9, 1875, it was also intended to serve the Irish-born immigrants of the state and their American-born children by providing news of their homeland. The launching of the Visitor in 1875 was but one sign of the growth and increasing importance of Rhode Island’s Irish population.
Shortly after he came to his new diocese, Bishop Thomas Francis Hendricken had announced his plan to tear down SS. Peter and Paul, his dilapidated cathedral church, and build a new, more fitting building. The panic of 1873 made the bishop’s task of fundraising more difficult, but he persisted nonetheless. About the same time that he raised the idea of constructing a new cathedral church, the bishop, who was accustomed to writing for the press, also raised the idea of beginning a journal that would represent the thought and sentiments of the Catholic community. Few at the time he first suggested the idea believed it was feasible since two earlier attempts to establish a Catholic paper had failed. The same spirit of faith and awareness of the needs of his diocese that drove him on to build a new cathedral also prompted the bishop to launch “The Weekly Visitor, A Sunday School Magazine” on October 9, 1875.
The bishop’s collaborator in the new venture was a young printer, newly trained in his trade, Andrew P. Martin. Martin, himself the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Lubec, Maine, in 1853, and was a convert to the Catholic faith. He had come to Providence about 1873 and had worked as an apprentice in the busy printing firm of Hammond and Angell near the present Turk’s Head building. After learning his trade, Martin, along with his brother, set up a small print shop, first in the Washington Building and then on Constitution Hill at 359 North Main Street.
When the new publication first appeared it was a single sheet which was folded to create four pages with four columns each. As noted above it was quickly reduced in size to save costs but expanded to two sheets or eight pages. At the time he and Andrew Martin launched the Visitor, Bishop Hendricken was fortunate to have with him at the cathedral a talented, young Irish priest, Father William D. Kelly, who became the Visitor’s first editor. Kelly had emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was a boy and had been educated at Boston Latin, Holy Cross College and the Major Seminary at Montreal. Father Kelly and Mr. Martin filled the pages of the new journal with international, national and local news of the Church. The paper’s editorial page gave Father Kelly and Bishop Hendricken the opportunity to discuss the issues and challenges confronting the Catholic community.
In order to gather local news for the paper, the editors invited Visitor readers to send them “short, spicy articles” recounting the activities of the various parishes in the diocese. Such articles were a regular feature of the paper from its beginnings. The Visitor also regularly gave space to the special events in the lives of the ordinary members of the community by printing notices of marriages and deaths. Although the Visitor opened its pages to advertisements, its main source of income was paid subscriptions. In addition to being delivered through the mail, the paper was available at several stores in the Providence area.
In 1879, Editor Michael A. Walsh began publishing two editions of the paper, one on Saturday and the other on Sunday. On Sept. 7, 1879, it appeared as the Sunday Visitor. The Saturday edition continued to appear as the Weekly Visitor and went chiefly to readers outside Providence; the Sunday edition was intended for circulation within Providence and could be purchased from the newsboys who delivered the local paper, which cost four cents a copy.
In January 1884, the Visitor Printing Company made efforts to reorganize and improve itself. As part of the reorganization, the company discontinued publishing two editions of the Visitor and changed the paper’s name to the Providence Visitor with its February 2, 1884 issue.
Beginning on March 1, 1924, the Visitor began running a new masthead with the statement that the Visitor was “America’s Largest and Best Catholic Newspaper.” More than a boast, this claim was substantiated in part by the School of Journalism at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., which, during the 1920s and ‘30s, consistently selected the Visitor as the leading Catholic newspaper in America. The quality of the paper bore practical results. In 1933, the Visitor could claim that it led the Catholic newspaper field in the United States and Canada in advertising lineage for diocesan papers.
In 1953, the Visitor began publishing a diocesan directory and information guide. The publication, which appeared for first time that fall, contained then, as it does now, the names and addresses of all churches, schools and clergy in addition to information on the religious communities that staffed them. It also contained information on the various social agencies of the diocese and the various Catholic organizations — religious, fraternal and social, as well as Catholic colleges, seminaries, scholasticates and novitiates.
In the tradition of La Sentinella and the short-lived Portuguese language section of the Visitor, in October 1993, the Providence Visitor began publishing a monthly Spanish-language edition of the paper. The Spanish Visitor — now named El Católico — is published bi-monthly and is distributed free of charge through the parishes with Spanish-speaking populations.
In 2007, the English publication was rebranded as Rhode Island Catholic by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin. It is delivered to thousands of homes and businesses across the state and has a strong online and social media presence. Rhode Island Catholic and El Católico have won more than 100 national press awards over the past 5 years alone, and continue to focus on the faith, family and life of the church on the local, national and international levels.
The success of the Visitor and Rhode Island Catholic to the first rank of American Catholic newspapers has been made possible by the support of bishops — including current shepherd and publisher Bishop Thomas J. Tobin — the talent of editors and assistant editors, and by the hard work of a dedicated staff of priests and lay people who have helped publish the venerable paper throughout the past 147 years.
This dedication continues to this day.
Father Hayman serves as historian and archivist for the diocese.
Assistant Editor Laura Kilgus contributed to this article.