The First Bishop of Providence: Thomas Francis Hendricken


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

PROVIDENCE — According to historical accounts in the Providence Visitor, the religious magazine established in 1875 as the first publication of the Diocese of Providence by its first shepherd, Bishop Thomas Francis Hendricken, the future bishop was destined for the priesthood by his parents back in his native Ireland.
He entered St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, in 1844, later matriculating from the rigorous Maynooth College.
A few years later, the Rt. Rev. Bishop Bernard O’Reilly, of Providence, visited Ireland in search of young clerics to serve in the missions in the Diocese of Hartford, which at the time included the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut, and young Father Hendricken was among those volunteering to cross the Atlantic to aid the Catholic Church in America.
After being ordained a priest by Bishop O’Reilly at All Hallows College, he bid farewell to his native land and became a missionary priest in Rhode Island. While returning from a second trip to Europe in 1856, Bishop O’Reilly was lost at sea.
For Father Hendricken, the new priest’s journey to the New World was fraught with peril.
The vessel on which he embarked held many steerage passengers, and a fatal ailment broke out among them.
To prevent the spread of the illness aboard the ship, the captain issued strict orders preventing contact between the affected passengers and the other travelers. But Father Hendricken chose not to obey those orders.
“Zealous for souls and moved with tender compassion, the young priest, regardless of all consequences to himself, went fearlessly into the crowded and pestilential quarter, where the sufferers were huddled together, to hear their confessions and administer the last rights of the Church to the dying,” according to the Visitor account of the incident.
For his compassion, the zealous young missionary was arrested and ordered to be kept a close prisoner, with a guard posted outside his room, while a not-so-veiled threat on his life was made for his actions.
“It was intimated to him that the intention was to have him put in a sack and cast into the sea during the night. He fully expected the sentence to be carried out, but heaven interposed in his favor. What it was that caused the captain to change his mind the bishop never knew, but he always regarded his escape on that occasion as a providential occurrence.”
On his arrival in Rhode Island in 1853, Father Hendricken was first assigned to serve in the cathedral parish. During this time, he also ministered in St. Joseph’s Parish, and in Woonsocket and Newport. In 1854, he was assigned to West Winsted, Connecticut, which included missions extending over a radius of 50 miles.
Despite the region being sparsely settled with Catholics, he judiciously used the limited resources of his “scattered” parish to pay off the debt on the church at Winsted, as well as in the territory of outlying missions, where he had commissioned that churches be built.
In 1855, Father Hendricken was given more responsibility when he was transferred to Waterbury, Connecticut, where he would serve for the next 17 years as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish.
“In Waterbury, Father Hendricken exhibited the same capacity which he displayed at Winsted. He built a costly gothic church, a schoolhouse and pastoral residence; purchased and laid out a beautiful cemetery, and founded a convent, where the Sisters of Notre Dame still reside,” according to an 1886 Visitor account.
Early on, the pastor would identify himself with the cause of education, even serving as a member of the public school board for several years.
At Immaculate Conception Father Hendricken served as a role model for a youngster named Michael McGivney, who would be inspired to go on to seminary in Canada. Father Hendricken showed his support for the young man’s vocation by accompanying him on the train ride to St. Hyacinth Seminary. Father Michael McGivney would later become the founder of the Knights of Columbus and was recently beatified as Blessed Michael McGivney on Oct. 31, 2020.
In 1872, Father Hendricken was named Bishop of Providence, and was consecrated in the old cathedral on April 28. Among the new bishop’s first duties was the payment of a debt of about $16,000 on the cathedral.
From the outset, it was the determination of the bishop to avoid incurring any debt. To achieve this, he adopted a plan to complete work on projects only in phases, once another money was raised to pay for each stage of the construction.
“The method was so successful that about $80,000 was assured at once, though the project of building a cathedral did not meet with general favor, and even some of the bishop’s closest friends endeavored to divert him from the attempt,” as the nation was still suffering from the effects of an economic downturn, according to the historical account.
Bishop Hendricken traveled throughout the diocese, gathering donations large and small.
Work resumed when the coffers earmarked for a new cathedral reached $30,000, which financed the building of a temporary, pro-cathedral on Broad Street in the garden of the Sisters of Mercy that could accommodate 2,000 people.
The present cathedral, designed by noted Irish-American architect Patrick Charles Keely and constructed with unusual exterior walls of Connecticut brownstone, was completed in 1876.
The bishop’s practice of making a full accounting of all monies spent was popular with the faithful, and eventually followed by the diocesan clergy in their parishes as well.
A pair of ad limina visits to the Vatican, along with the many duties that kept him busy in his everyday life began to take their toll on Bishop Hendricken’s health.
In early 1886, at the age of 59 and in declining health, Bishop Hendricken had a wish: that he would live long enough to see the beautiful Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, whose construction he had commissioned, consecrated. He died on June 11, 1886.
The Providence Visitor, which continues to this day as The Rhode Island Catholic, wrote about the bishop’s zeal for putting the best interests of the community before his own comforts in an edition dated Saturday, June 19, 1886:
“In the accomplishment of his episcopal duties, no thought of his own ease or his physical ailments ever deterred Bishop Hendricken from the most onerous undertakings, and those about him often wondered at the untiring energy of one who suffered a life-long martyrdom from a severe asthmatic affection that troubled his waking and sleeping hours, compelling him often to spend the greater portion of the night in a sitting posture, seeking an alleviation for physical pain in reading and thinking out the details of the many projects he had in view for the present and future welfare of that portion of the vineyard committed to his care.”
The Most Rev. Matthew Harkins, who served as the second Bishop of Providence, was consecrated in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in 1887, with regular services beginning there in November of that year.
It would take an additional two years to complete work on the cathedral, which was consecrated on Sunday, June 30, 1889.
Bishop Hendricken would remain at rest in a crypt below the high altar for 120 years until Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the eighth Bishop of Providence, called for the remains of the bishop to be moved to a more prominent location upstairs within the cathedral he founded.
On Friday, Dec. 8, 2006, a cadre of students from Bishop Hendricken High School and others moved the bishop’s remains into a 2,100-pound sarcophagus hewn out of a block of Verde Candeias Brazilian granite.


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