The Second Bishop of Providence: Matthew A. Harkins


As the Diocese of Providence celebrates its 150th anniversary through June 26, 2022, Rhode Island Catholic is featuring profiles of the eight men who have served as diocesan shepherds through its history.

PROVIDENCE — After Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken succumbed to a cold on June 11, 1886 — one that he is believed to have caught during a pastoral visit to five Pawtuxet Valley parishes three weeks before — and with his funeral on June 16 becoming the first Eucharistic celebration in the new Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, it would be 10 months before the Second Bishop of Providence was consecrated.
Father Matthew A. Harkins was a respected pastor of the Archdiocese of Boston, known for being an expert theologian and successful administrator, when he was appointed by Pope Leo XIII on Feb. 11, 1887, to lead the Diocese of Providence. He was consecrated bishop on April 14, 1887.
In the course of his years, Bishop Harkins would be called by his contemporary, Bishop William Stang of Fall River, “the ideal of a Catholic Bishop,” according to the research of Diocese of Providence Archivist Father Robert W. Hayman, published in his book,
“A Short History of the Diocese of Providence: 1780-2000.”
The future Bishop Harkins was born in Boston on November 17, 1845, of Irish immigrant parents. He was a student in Boston’s public school system and would go on to graduate from Holy Cross College, Worcester.
He then entered priestly formation, studying with the Benedictines in the English College at Douai, France, and then with the Sulpicians at St. Sulpice in Paris and Issy.
He was ordained a priest on May 22, 1869, serving as a parish priest in the Massachusetts towns of Salem and Arlington.
In 1884, at the age of 39, he was appointed pastor of St. James in Boston, then the largest parish in New England.
Three years later, Bishop Harkins, D.D., would put his administrative skills to good use in the Providence diocese, which grew to be among the largest in the country with one of the highest percentages of Catholics. The diocese grew so large that Bishop Harkins asked the Vatican to carve off an area of its territory so that it could become the new Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Father Hayman’s research shows that the Diocese of Providence was left with a population of 190,000, which increased to 275,180 by 1920, when Catholics comprised nearly 46 percent of the state’s then-604,397 residents.
Bishop Harkins grew the Diocese of Providence from 39 parishes to 95 when he died in 1921. He also left 21 missions, which would also become parishes.
Almost half of the new parishes were created to minister to the English-speaking Catholics, while others, including St. Augustin’s in Newport; St. Mark’s in Jamestown; St. Philomena’s (later becoming St. Thomas More) in Narragansett; St. Benedict’s, Conimicut; and St. Andrew’s on Block Island, served year-round parishioners, while swelling to accommodate the large numbers of summer visitors who took to the shoreline seeking relief from the summer heat.
The other half of the newly created parishes were established to serve the needs of the diverse ethnic groups that enriched the state at that time.
During his tenure as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence, Bishop Harkins created 12 French Canadian, seven Italian, six Polish, two Portuguese and two Syrian parishes — one of the Maronite rite, the other, Melkite. Additionally, St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church was established in Woonsocket in 1908, with the Divine Liturgy celebrated there according to the Ruthenian rite.
When he was appointed in 1887, Bishop Harkins had 63 priests serving the parishes and missions in the diocese. He brought in seven religious communities to the diocese to supplement the only other religious group providing service — the Jesuits, who were at St. Joseph Parish in Providence.
While the Jesuits would leave the diocese seven years later, the Dominican and Scalabrini Fathers, the Marists, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the Fathers of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit all responded affirmatively to Bishop Harkin’s outreach and accepted his invitation to serve the non-English-speaking immigrants of Rhode Island.
In 1892, Bishop Harkins founded St. Joseph’s Hospital to ensure that serious and incurably ill Catholics received proper nursing care and consolation in their faith. The Franciscan Sisters of Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, staffed the facility.
In 1898, Bishop Harkins supported the opening of a Working Boys Home to serve the needs of orphan boys old enough to work. And to provide for the healthy recreation of all children, the Tower Hill House was purchased as a summer retreat location.
Bishop Harkins’ commitment to Catholic education included his full support of the decrees of the Councils of Baltimore that called for a Catholic school in every parish. He established a Diocesan School Board in 1888.
Of the 41 functioning parishes when he arrived as shepherd, only 12 had schools. Bishop Harkins pressed his priests to establish Catholic schools.
Of the 30 new schools opened between 1887 and 1921, 15 were French Canadian, and one served a mixed French- and English-speaking congregation. Of the remaining 14 schools, one opened in 1917 for the Italian children at St. Ann’s Parish in Providence, one for Polish children at St. Joseph’s in Central Falls, and a third for Syrian children at St. Basil’s in Central Falls. English-speaking parishes opened the remaining 11 schools.
There were also nine high schools, academies or select schools when Bishop Harkins came to serve as shepherd of the Providence diocese. Although some would close, new high schools would open in response to the growing prosperity of the Catholic community and the need to prepare workers to better meet the needs of businesses flourishing at that time.
At the college level, a chance meeting with a Dominican of the American Province of St. Joseph in the summer of 1910 set the stage for the Dominicans joining the diocese in the opening of Providence College, which was dedicated on May 25, 1919, as part of Bishop Harkins’ 50th anniversary of priestly ordination.
The event would be Bishop Harkins’ last public function as illness would subsequently limit his activities, confining him to the cathedral rectory. He died two years later, on May 25, 1921, at the age of 75, after serving for 34 years as the Second Bishop of Providence.