Several prominent Catholics among those inducted into R.I. Heritage Hall of Fame

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BRISTOL — In the winter of 1942, a paint-bespeckled Italian art professor, known for having a hunchback, was diligently at work in a Woonsocket church, carrying on a decade-long project which would culminate in the largest collection of fresco paintings in North America. Farther to the south, a septuagenarian nurse who had spearheaded Providence’s battle against tuberculosis now contributed to the fight against a new enemy, leading efforts to recruit and train military nurses to serve overseas. Slightly to the east, in Bristol, St. Mary’s Church prepared to welcome their new pastor – a priest already well known throughout the state for his work with Catholic Charities and the Rhode Island Conference of Social Work, organizations which had been at the forefront of relief efforts during the recent Great Depression.

These three individuals were among the 11 historical figures inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in their annual ceremony at the Old Statehouse in Bristol on Sunday, Nov. 18. Since its first ceremony in 1965, the Heritage Hall of Fame has been celebrating prominent personages throughout Rhode Island’s history whose lives left a lasting impression on the Ocean State. As one might expect from the most heavily Catholic state in the Union, a very large percentage of the history-makers honored by the Hall have been members of the Church — ranging from historical figures like Bishop Thomas Hendricken and 19th Century philanthropist Joseph Banigan to contemporary Catholic leaders like Sister Therese Antone.

One prominent Catholic to have been inducted is Rhode Island Historian Laureate Dr. Patrick T. Conley, who served as the master of ceremonies for this year’s convocation. As chairman of the Historical Committee, Conley was also responsible for the Hall of Fame’s ongoing effort to canvas Rhode Island’s history in order to commemorate our state’s most notable residents. Upon his own induction to the hall in 1995, Conley was surprised by how many significant figures from Rhode Island’s history were missing from its roster.

“I had to ask: ‘How the heck do we have Pat Conley in here but not Anne Hutchinson?” he recounted during his opening address.

Portsmouth’s legendary foundress was inducted in the organization’s first Historical Convocation in 1997, and every year since has included a ceremony honoring the history-makers of a given era. This year’s induction focused on the first half of the 20th Century, and included a very strong showing from Catholics of the period, with two priests and several prominent members of the laity being awarded spots in the Hall of Fame.

One of the clergymen honored in the event had an intimate connection with the Rhode Island Catholic, having worked as editor of the newspaper (then known as the Providence Visitor) from 1906-1912. In addition to this journalistic work, Msgr. Peter Blessing also served as vicar general for the diocese for 40 years, working with a total of four different bishops. At two points during that period, Blessing actually administered diocesan affairs when the sudden death or reassignment of a bishop temporarily left the episcopal seat vacant. Blessing’s induction was particularly special for Conley, who grew up attending St. Michael Parish in South Providence — the last church Blessing had been assigned to before his death in 1957. Conley recollected that, as a child, he had once asked the monsignor why he had never become a bishop despite his four decades of service in the diocesan hierarchy. The pithy cleric replied “It seems that God wanted me to always be a bridesmaid and never a bride.”

Another priest inducted in the ceremony had close ties to the host city: Father Charles C. Curran was the pastor of St. Mary’s in Bristol from 1946-1953. Father Curran’s pastoral career was not the basis for his induction, however. As the first director of the Diocesan Bureau of Social Work and a major figure in the early history of the Catholic Charities Appeal, Father Curran was instrumental in helping the local Church assist families impacted by the Great Depression. He was also the founding president of the Rhode Island Conference of Social Work, a position which allowed him to promote a greater degree of cooperation between diocesan and secular social service organizations.

One of the challenges involved with the Hall of Fame’s Historical Convocations is locating an appropriate individual to accept the award on behalf of a long-deceased inductee. In Father Curran’s case, diocesan archivist Father Robert Hayman was selected to receive the award on his behalf. Father Hayman was also responsible for the nomination of another Rhode Islander honored in the November 18 ceremony: Winnifred Fitzpatrick, who Dr. Conley identified as “Rhode Island’s most highly-acclaimed nurse ever.”

Not only did Fitzpatrick help lead the state’s efforts to eradicate tuberculosis, she was also a dedicated parishioner at Providence’s Church of the Holy Name and a volunteer with numerous Catholic organizations throughout the diocese. As associate director of the Providence District Nurses Association, Fitzpatrick helped to decrease the rate of tuberculosis deaths in Rhode Island by 80 percent over the course of 30 years. Part of the reason her approach was so successful was her desire to bring together state and diocesan forces to fight the disease — and her willingness to defy social conventions in doing so.

“She and Bishop Hawkins met frequently back in a day when women just weren’t prominent in public life,” Father Hayman said. “The diocese and the Anti-Tuberculosis League had a common interest: the health and well-being of all Rhode Islanders.”

A very different sort of legacy was left by Guido Nincheri, an artist whose frescoes and stained glass have earned him the nickname “the Michelangelo of North America.” A native of Tuscany, Nincheri spent the last 30 years of his life living in Rhode Island. During this time, he decorated 13 local churches, in addition to completing an extensive series of murals in Roger Williams Park. He is perhaps most famous for the frescoes he painted in St. Ann’s Church, Woonsocket — the largest collection of frescoes on the continent, rivaling the Sistine Chapel in size. The former church is now the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center, a representative from which was present at the induction ceremony to receive the award on Nincheri’s behalf.

It is worth noting, of course, that Catholics were not the only Christians to feature prominently in the induction ceremony. Bishop James DeWolf-Perry, III, led the Episcopalian Diocese of Rhode Island for three decades, and even served as the presiding bishop of the entire American Episcopal Church for seven years. The Protestant prelate was also inducted in the ceremony, with his award being presented to his granddaughter, Tinka Perry. Other Rhode Islanders honored in the ceremony included politicians Harry Curvin and Chief Justice Francis Condon, the philanthropist couple George and Florence Champlin, healthcare leader Louisa White and Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Robert Waugh Turner.

This wide diversity among the inductees was cited in a moving closing prayer offered by La Salette Missionary Father Philip Salois.

“The men and women celebrated here today have inspired us with their work as political leaders, as members of the ministerial priesthood, by dedicating themselves to healthcare or to the arts and sciences, or by their service to our country,” Salois noted.

Reflecting upon this wide variety of talents and vocations does more than simply allow us to celebrate our state’s unique cultural heritage, Salois noted.

It allows us to give “glory and honor to the author of human life” — something which all of us certainly should strive to do in our own small ways, as there’s always a possibility that such a life of service could mean that your name will be among those added to the Hall of Fame a mere 50 years from now.