PROVIDENCE — Until comparatively recently, public school history curricula tended to narrativize the story of American civilization as beginning with the arrival of the Protestant English — the “Pilgrims,” as they came be known (an unusual name for immigrants, as a pilgrim typically returns to their point of origin). Modern classrooms now recognize the wide diversity of indigenous cultures present on the American continent long before the arrival of European peoples (of whom the English were comparative latecomers).
The story of the American Church, on the other hand, really does begin with the arrival of immigrants: Catholicism was once as foreign to the Americas as it was to Europe, the faith itself being a Galilean export.
The Diocese of Providence has been shaped by the arrival of a remarkable diversity of peoples over its 150 years, each of whom has enriched the broader culture of the state in unique ways. Of these various groups, six ancestry groups stand out as particularly numerous in the Diocese of Providence (according to U.S. Census Data). The various traditions they brought with them have created a unique cultural landscape in the diocese, one which continues to welcome newly arriving pilgrims today.
Main period of immigration: 1815 - 1920s
Despite the colony’s reputation for religious diversity, there was negligible Catholic presence in Rhode Island until the French occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War. After Rochambeau’s warships departed for the south, a new invasion of Catholics arrived in the state — this time from Ireland, and this time with plans to settle permanently.
The Fox Point neighborhood of Providence was the site of the first Irish community in Rhode Island, with a temporary church being established in 1813 in a rented schoolhouse quite near to where the Portuguese would later found Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. This population never grew to a significant size, however, and eventually faded due to shifting economic conditions.
The first major Irish settlement was in Newport, where Rev. Robert Woodley established a small parish in a dilapidated former schoolhouse in 1828 — a modest beginning for what would eventually become the summer parish (and wedding venue) for the first Catholic President of the United States. Together with the Irish coal-mining communities of Portsmouth, this fledgling population eventually swelled to turn Aquidneck Island into a Celtic bastion: the island remains the most heavily Irish region of the state, with Middletown currently boasting the most green in its gene pool (as many as one-third of its residents, according to Census data).
Rhode Island’s Irish were widespread in their settling patterns, however, they remain the most geographically diffuse ethnic group in the state, due in part to their historic willingness to travel wherever there was a call for unskilled labor. Communities developed throughout the north of the state, with areas like Providence, Woonsocket and Pawtucket becoming particular loci of Gaelic settlement.
Their established presence in the state (and their ability as English speakers to assimilate more readily with the dominant culture) gave the Irish an early ascendency within the diocese, with the first five prelates of Providence all being either native Irishmen or Irish-Americans.
Although early Irish settlers were no strangers to discrimination (one need only think of the rough treatment that Bishop Hendricken himself received on his trip across the Atlantic), their skill for social and political organization gradually resulted in their breakthrough into Rhode Island’s political elite: Irishmen were elected the mayors of Pawtucket in 1890 and of Newport in 1895, with James H. Higgins becoming the first Irish (and first Catholic) Governor of Rhode Island in 1907.
Main period of immigration: 1860s - 1930s
The first group of coreligionists to join the Irish in Rhode Island were the massive waves of immigration from Eastern Canada, attracted by the state’s booming textile economy. Establishing Woonsocket as their regional capital, these settlers developed “little Canadas” based around parish communities throughout the industrial villages of Northern Rhode Island (with an additional population developing in West Warwick and the surrounding area). The term “colony” seems uniquely appropriate to describe the atmosphere of these communities: in contrast to the Irish, many of the French immigrants were only temporary settlers, young workers hoping to bring the money they earned in Rhode Island back with them to Canada. The language barrier provided an additional layer of isolation between the Québécois and their English-speaking neighbors.
Compounding these cultural barriers were the differing philosophies towards church administration among the Irish and the French. Parishes in Quebec enjoyed a great degree of freedom, with the pastoral curé exercising extensive spiritual authority over his parish and the laity largely controlling finances through parish councils. The Diocese of Providence, on the other hand, had been organized according to the traditional Irish system of centralized power, with the bishop having a more direct influence on parishes.
This tension regarding parish administration occasionally spilled over into open controversy (most notably in l’affair Sentinelle), but also enriched the diocese with a legacy of Catholic hospitals, orphanages and other charitable institutions (such as Notre Dame Hospital in Central Falls). Like the Irish, the French eventually managed to establish themselves in positions of leadership: Gov. Higgins was succeeded by Aram J. Pothier in 1909, while Bishop Louis E. Gelineau became the first Franco-American Bishop of Providence in 1972.
Main period of immigration: 1880s - 1940s
Today, the Italians constitute the most numerous European ethnic group in the Diocese of Providence; indeed, Rhode Island has become the most heavily Italian state in the country according to Census data. It can be surprising, therefore, to recall how comparatively recent their arrival in our diocese actually was. Most of the immigration from Italy occurred in a few massive waves over the course of the early 20th century, resulting in a rapid demographic shift in the central part of the state.
Although they may be more numerous than the Irish, Rhode Island’s Italian population is much less widespread, being heavily concentrated within the central part of the state (their historic capital, of course, being Providence’s Federal Hill).
What distinguished Italian immigration from the Irish and French was its heavily regional nature: many communities which developed in Rhode Island were populated with families and neighbors from the same Italian village. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this can be found in the Knightsville neighborhood of Cranston, where the Italian population derives almost entirely from the small Neapolitan city of Itri. Their devotion to the Madonna della Civita (and their jubilant celebrations to mark her feast day) have become defining elements of Cranston’s culture.
Similarly, the original parishioners of the Church of the Sacred Heart, in the Natick section of West Warwick, were drawn from the rival Italian villages of Fornelli and Grazzanise, which led to longstanding traditions of good-natured competition between natives of each town. Today, the relics of San Pietro Martire da Verona, the patron saint of Fornelli, are displayed prominently within the church for veneration.
As Rhode Island’s Italians increased in number, so did their influence, with John O. Pastore becoming the first Italian-American governor of any state in 1945. Also, Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans is the first Providence bishop with Italian roots — which run deep in the Federal Hill neighborhood where he grew up.
Main period of immigration: 1880s - Present
In addition to being the most Italian state in the nation, Rhode Island also has the highest percentage of Portuguese-Americans, with nearly twice the per capita rate of the runner-up, Massachusetts. Considering that the Diocese of Fall River was originally a part of the Diocese of Providence, it seems fair to claim that the Diocese of Providence was the point of entry for the overwhelming majority of Portuguese Catholics in the United States today.
The very first Portuguese to settle in the area, however, were not Catholic at all: in 1763, Aaron Lopez and other Sephardic Jews fled persecution in their native country to establish Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish place of worship in the United States.
A Catholic Portuguese population would develop in Rhode Island over the course of the 19th century, with immigrants being drawn from colonies in the Azores and Cape Verde by whaling ships. Their cultural history as sailors, shipbuilders, and navigators served the Portuguese well in the Ocean State, and they became integral parts of the maritime economy of the East Bay.
Their numbers swelled over the course of the early 20th century, with parishes opening in Bristol in 1913, East Providence in 1915, and Newport in 1926. This trend of growth continued well into the 1950s, with Portuguese parishes opening in Warren in 1952 and Valley Falls, Cumberland, the year after. The last of these is dedicated to one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Portuguese Catholicism: Our Lady of Fatima, statues of whom can be found in nearly every Portuguese church in the state, as well as a fair number of gardens in front of Portuguese homes.
Perhaps the only Portuguese tradition more famous than the Fatima devotion is the nation’s celebration of the Holy Ghost (traditionally marked by sharing “sopas,” or soups, together with an elaborate Marian crowning ceremony).
Since the turn of the 20th century, the original Portuguese community has been increasingly joined by newer Portuguese-speaking immigrants from nations like Brazil and Cape Verde — creating a truly unique blend of Lusophone cultures in Rhode Island.
Main period of immigration: 1900s - 1960s
The same wave of immigration that brought the Italians and Portuguese to the diocese also saw a large number of arrivals from Poland. Although there had been trace populations of Poles present in Rhode Island as far back as the 1840s, there was a massive spike in immigration from the country in the early 20th century: the 20-year window from 1900-1920 saw the population increase by some 400%, resulting in the creation of no fewer than seven Polish parishes in cities like Central Falls, Coventry and Warren.
Mingled in with the Polish at many of these churches were a large number of Lithuanian immigrants; these would eventually grow to a significant enough population to form their own parish (St. Casimir’s, Providence).
Like the Italians, settlers from Central Europe and the Baltic states tended to form small, dense population pockets; like the French, these settlements tended to be organized around thriving textile mills.
Due to their smaller numbers and the geographically scattered areas in which they settled, the influence of Polish culture on Rhode Island has been somewhat quieter than the preceding waves of Catholic immigrants. Despite this, many local non-Poles have had the opportunity to experience Polish cuisine and hospitality firsthand due to the culture’s emphasis on hospitality — especially on the Feast of the “Trzech Króli,” or the Epihany. Polish parishes frequently host open houses to mark the end of the Christmas season, and Polish neighborhoods can be easily identified in the second week of January by the sight of “C + B + M” inscribed in blessed chalk over their door frames.
Hispanics & Latin Americans
Main Period of Immigration: 1950s - Present
The latest Catholic population to arrive in Rhode Island is also the fastest growing, having soared by 40% over the course of the past decade. When combined, the various Hispanic and Latino settlers in Rhode Island — drawn primarily from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic — constitute the third largest group of Catholics in the diocese. Despite this, they have never had a dedicated parish of their own: by the time they arrived in Rhode Island, the era of forming national churches had already passed, and the Church began to heavily emphasize its universal nature in the wake of Vatican II.
This has led the Hispanics to be largely incorporated within existing parishes, many of which were founded by immigrants themselves. In Federal Hill’s Holy Ghost Church, parishioners leaving the 10:30 a.m. Italian Mass now mingle with those arriving for the noon Mass in Spanish. The historically Irish St. Patrick Parish on Smith Hill now boasts one of the most active Hispanic congregations in the diocese (in addition to a vibrant Hmong ministry). Meanwhile, members of the Haitian Creole community worship at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in South Providence.
Immigration from Latin America to Rhode Island began as early as the 1830s, though it only reached a significant rate in the latter half of the 20th century, in keeping with larger regional trends. One of the earliest efforts at organizing a ministry among these newcomers to the diocese was the Latin American Apostolate of Providence, which opened a Latin American Community Center on Harvard Ave in 1970.
Under the leadership of figures like Father Raymond Teatrault and Sister Mercedes Iralis, this organization helped Spanish-speaking immigrants locate housing, jobs and parish communities — the last of these sometimes helping to offset declining attendance rates at the European parishes. This ministry survives today as the Office of Multicultural Ministry, which coordinates a popular celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe each December.
Of course, these six ethnic groups have not been the only ones to settle in the diocese. Although the English community that dominated Rhode Island for most of the 19th century was predominantly Protestant, there were a number of notable Catholics and converts. The diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry organizes programs for Catholics of color in the diocese, including from Sub-Saharan Africa. Rhode Island includes ethnic Catholics of other rites, including Syrian Maronite and Ukrainian Greek Catholics. Over the past 150 years, the contributions of these various pilgrims have enriched the culture of the Diocese of Providence — bringing spiritual bounty to Providence from the furthest reaches of our global church.
The information in this history was compiled using the work of Diocesan Archivist Father Robert W. Hayman, Ph.D., together with the pamphlet series produced by the Rhode Island Heritage Commission (published by R. McKenna and Patrick Conley). Demographic information was taken from the 2020 U.S. Census when available and estimated using the 2010 Census when not available.
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