Somewhat submerged in the right front corner of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is the fortress-like structure’s cornerstone recalling the date in 1889 when Bishop Thomas Hendricken inaugurated the project that would give the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island a worthy testimony to the Catholic Church’s expanding presence throughout the community. Mass had been offered in Newport a century earlier. Bristol witnessed some Catholic activity early in the nineteenth century. Pawtucket had its first parish by 1826 and Woonsocket first celebrated the Holy Sacrifice in a local home during the same year.
During the 1830s land was purchased, a parish was established and a church building was dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul, serving as a parish church until Providence became a diocese in its own right in 1872, and the present cathedral edifice was begun in 1889. The first ceremony conducted in the new cathedral was ironically the funeral Mass of Bishop Hendricken, whose remains now rest prominently adjacent to the sanctuary. In anticipation of this year’s 125th anniversary of the cathedral’s construction, a major restoration of the interior of the building has been undertaken, greatly illuminating the major renovation begun by Bishop Russell J. McVinney after the Second Vatican Council. With equal irony, Bishop McVinney had to be buried from his youthful parish of the Blessed Sacrament since his renewal project was still incomplete at the time of his death. All of these notable religious milestones will be recalled this coming Sunday, June 29, as the Diocese of Providence celebrates the rich history of its diocesan seat.
The selection of Saints Peter and Paul as diocesan patrons was both very Roman and very Catholic. The deaths of these two founding fathers have customarily been understood to have occurred in the city of Rome, where both men underwent persecution and death — one by crucifixion, the other by the sword. Lately, historical research seems to confirm this tradition. Unique within the Christian community, the Roman Catholic Church understands the see of Rome and its religious institutions rooted in apostolic tradition to be divinely appointed as the authentic guardian of Christian faith and morality. St. Peter, first bishop of the Roman see, and among Jesus’ initial disciples, was especially favored to witness the Transfiguration. He was personally renamed Peter by the Savior, was uniquely awarded the keys of the kingdom, was generally the spokesman for the disciples, was invited to share intimately the agony in the garden, was first among the apostles to enter the empty tomb, was favored to preach on Pentecost Sunday and was the first to baptize a pagan family. The Office of Peter, maintained courageously at the see of Rome for two millennia, underlies and supports our Church’s Roman roots.
St. Paul, on the other hand, never met the historical Jesus nor was he instructed in the Gospel message by the Savior. St. Paul, by his own admission, was “born out of due time” and received the truths of Christianity through an unusually Divine stimulus, contact with early converts and long personal reflection. Bereft of traditional apostolic roots, St. Paul is an exemplary symbol of the catholicity of the Church. Celebrated as the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul traversed the Mediterranean world, perhaps even going as far as Spain, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Greco-Roman world. The world-wide Catholic Church that today flourishes in Africa and Asia, while it faces challenges in Europe and America, is the legacy of the missionary activity of St. Paul who struggled to overcome his own zealous Judaism and share the good news of salvation with Jew and Greek alike.
The roots and branches of the Diocese of Providence and its historic cathedral are, like the roots and branches of the universal Church itself, both Roman and Catholic. The bishop of Providence, his Excellency Thomas J. Tobin, presides in an apostolic succession that dates back to the first generation of Christian believers who were initiated at Jerusalem and then were established in Rome. Bishop Tobin also presides over a diocese that is perhaps more internationally diverse than at any time in diocesan history, a vivid testimony to the catholicity of the believing Church community. Saints Peter and Paul, diocesan patrons, pray for us!