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 — As Bishop Matthew Harkins began to advance in both age and health, he asked the Holy See in 1914 for an auxiliary bishop to assist him in his duties.
After Auxiliary Bishop Thomas F. Doran died in 1916, after only eight months in office, and his successor, Auxiliary Bishop Dennis Lowney, served for less than a year after he was stricken with heart disease and died, Bishop Harkins then asked the Vatican for a coadjutor instead.
Father William A. Hickey, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, was appointed coadjutor with the right of succession. He was consecrated to the episcopacy on April 10, 1919, and would serve in the capacity for two years until Bishop Harkins died on May 21, 1921.
Bishop Hickey was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1869. He attended public schools in Worcester before enrolling at College of the Holy Cross.
After graduating in 1890, he was accepted as a candidate for the priesthood and was sent first to St. Sulpice, in Paris, then to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, for his priestly formation.
He was ordained in December 1893, and served in several parishes as an assistant before his appointment as a pastor, serving first in Gilbertsville, followed by Clinton, Massachusetts.
On May 23, 1919, about six weeks after Bishop Hickey became coadjutor of the Diocese of Providence, the ailing Bishop Harkins bestowed on his coadjutor the entire portfolio of diocesan administration.
As restrictive immigration laws passed in the 1920s significantly reduced the flow of immigrants setting in the diocese, Bishop Hickey’s administrative responsibilities changed from continuing Bishop Harkins’ approach in building new parishes and institutions to improving the organization of the diocese.
“Bishop Hickey saw that if the Church of Providence were to serve its people effectively, it had to be more efficiently organized, especially if it were to provide a first-rate Catholic education,” wrote Father Robert W. Hayman, Ph.D., archivist and historian for the Diocese of Providence and former history professor at Providence College.
Father Hayman is the author of several books on diocesan history, including “The Diocese of Providence: A Short History 1780-2000.”
Father Hayman said that one of the first tasks that Bishop Hickey undertook as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence was to conduct a diocesan drive to raise $400,000 to reduce the debt on Providence College and to purchase additional facilities and equipment.
The drive was even more successful than he envisioned, raising more than $500,000.
Bishop Hickey opened 14 new parish schools and provided classroom space for girls in the care of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. He also named Father Thomas V. Cassidy as the first diocesan superintendent of schools.
The bishop also secured an act of incorporation from the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1929 for the Catholic Teachers College, which would serve for many years as the diocesan normal training college for the many religious communities serving students in the diocese.
In 1923, Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, Burrillville, was the first parish to be established during Bishop Hickey’s tenure.
The bishop next focused his attention on changing the manner in which the high schools of the diocese were established and funded.
With the demand for a Catholic high school education increasing rapidly in the 1920s, La Salle Academy, until then the only diocesan high school, did not have sufficient resources to meet that demand. Bishop Hickey wanted to build new high schools in places where large numbers of teenagers resided. In January 1923, he announced a drive to raise $1 million to fund the construction or acquisition of buildings to house new diocesan high schools, believing that only the diocese could muster the resources necessary to build and maintain schools of the quality he envisioned.
The campaign was launched on May 13, 1923, and by the end of its first week, 70,000 people had contributed or pledged more than $1 million to fund Bishop Hickey’s new high school initiative, which would produce Mount St. Charles Academy and construct a new building at La Salle Academy. It would also lead to the creation of De La Salle Academy in Newport and St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket.
Unlike Bishop Harkins, whose duties and interests allowed him to take extended trips away from the Diocese of Providence, Bishop Hickey seldom left the diocese.
“He enjoyed an occasional round of golf, but, in general, his hours of recreation were few while his working days were long,” Father Hayman wrote of Bishop Hickey.
But his intense dedication to raising funds for new Catholic high schools was not without controversy.
In January 1923, after Bishop Hickey announced the $1 million drive for education, a group of ultranationalist French-Canadians headed by Elphege Daignault, a Woonsocket lawyer, petitioned the Sacred Congregation of the Council in Rome, pointing out that only 46 of the then-96 parishes in the diocese had schools. He asked the Holy Father to halt the fundraising drive, citing previous drives in support of Providence College.
“He described the new, even larger drive as an ‘exorbitant tax the faithful cannot pay without putting in danger their churches, their schools and all the Catholic works they look after,’” Father Hayman wrote.
What became known as the “Sentinellists Movement,” named after the “La Sentinelle” newspaper the group started, was born in 1924, and garnered both national and international attention for the diocese.
“The focus of the struggle settled on Bishop Hickey’s right to control parish funds,” Father Hayman wrote.
A Massachusetts court precedent around that time had upheld another bishop’s right to use parish funds for the good of the whole Church. When the Sentinellists’ case was presented in Rhode Island’s Superior and Supreme courts, Bishop Hickey’s position was upheld. The Vatican, after conferring on Diagnault and his group the penalty of excommunication for their actions, refused to hear pleas for their case. The leader, and eventually all the others who signed the suits, complied with the conditions set forth by Bishop Hickey for absolution.
In 1927, two years after the successful campaign to commission new diocesan Catholic high schools, Bishop Hickey launched an initiative to revive the drive under the title of the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal, with an initial goal of raising a half million dollars to finance the construction of new buildings for diocesan charities. Going forward, the Appeal would be conducted each May and serve as a replacement for the various fundraising efforts of individual institutions for the operating expenses. In its first year, the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal raised $307,101 for the 20 Catholic institutions receiving assistance from the Appeal that year.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, heralding the Great Depression, Bishop Hickey directed his pastors and administrators to expedite any new scheduled construction or renovations in order to provide jobs for the unemployed. With several projects underway at the time, almost $1 million in construction work was in the pipeline in 1930, with another million dollars’ worth slated for 1931.
Bishop Hickey also called for the establishment of a branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in every parish to meet as many of the needs of the unemployed or underemployed as possible at the time.
Two years later, at the age of 64, Bishop William A. Hickey, the third Bishop of Providence, suffered a heart attack. He died on October 4, 1933.
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