The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese as
“that portion of God’s people which is entrusted to a bishop to be shepherded
by him with the cooperation of the presbyterium (the priests of the
diocese.) Adhering thus to its pastor
and gathered together through the gospel and the Eucharist this portion
constitutes a particular Church in which the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic
Church of Christ is truly present and cooperative.” (Christus Dominus)
In 1904 Pope Pius X set apart as a
distinct portion of God’s people the parishes of Southeastern Massachusetts and
gave them a bishop who would have his Cathedral in the City of Fall River. This of course was not the beginning of the
Catholic Church in this area. Since
1872 the territory of the new Diocese of Fall River had been a part of the
Diocese of Providence and previous to that part of the Diocese of Boston.
Although Catholics may have come
briefly in to the area during the days of colonial exploration, it was not
until the early nineteenth century that Catholic history really began. The first documented evidence of Catholic
life in what is now the Diocese of Fall River is the record of the transfer of
a parcel of land at Allen and Dartmouth Streets in New Bedford on March 19,
1821 to John Cheverus, first Bishop of Boston.
Here Father Philip Lariscy, an Irish Augustinian, was able to build a
small frame Church with the aid of a band of Irish parishioners and Portuguese
seamen. This church was one of only six
Catholic Churches in New England and it has given to St. Lawrence Parish in New
Bedford the singular distinction of tracing its origin to Bishop Cheverus who
blessed the church on October 28, 1821.
Soon other Catholic communities
began to spring up. At Sandwich on Cape
Cod, St. Peter’s Church was dedicated in 1830 to serve the Catholics who had
come to work at the famous glass works, in Taunton, an enterprising group of
Catholics settled after the opening of the Taunton Print Works. Due to their efforts the first St. Mary’s
Church was dedicated in 1832. Fall
River received its first Catholic family in 1822 with the arrival of Patrick
and Helen Kennedy and their five children.
In their home Father Robert Woodley, who traveled throughout the area,
offered Mass for the first time in 1828 but it was not until 1837 that the
small wooden church of St. John the Baptist was erected on the site of the
present S. Mary’s Cathedral. In North
Easton the Ames family gave land for a small chapel in 1850 and in 1859 St.
Mary’s in North Attleboro was dedicated, the first church in that area.
From these early centers priests
tended to Catholics in neighboring and even distant towns such as Dartmouth,
Somerset, Norton, Attleboro, Mansfield, Wareham, Harwich, Provincetown, Woods
Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
After the Civil War, immigration to
the area increased substantially. In
1869 a Portuguese priest was sent to New Bedford to care for the congregation
that would become the parish of St. John the Baptist, the first in the United
States founded for Portuguese Catholics.
In the same year St. Anne’s Parish in Fall River was established for
French Canadians. In future decades
parishes would be formed for Polish, Italian, German, Cape Verdean and Lebanese
Catholics so that Bishop William O. Brady could accurately say in his sermon on
the occasion of the Diocesan Golden Jubilee that “the people of God in the
Diocese of Fall River make up a Pentecostal list.”
There were however only nine
parishes in this portion of Massachusetts when it became part of the newly
created Diocese of Providence in 1872, but by 1904 when the Diocese of Fall
River was established there were forty-four parishes serving 130,000
Catholics. The new diocese received an
outstanding priest as its first bishop.
The Most Reverend William Stang was born in Germany, taught at the
University of Louvain in Belgium and had served with distinction in parishes,
in the curia and on the mission band of the Diocese of Providence. Bishop Stang was recognized as a man of
learning and holiness. During the
episcopate, which was cut short by his untimely death in 1907, he established
parishes, zealously implemented the directives of the pope on catechetical
instruction and encouraged the founding of St. Anne’s Hospital.
Bishop Stang was succeeded by the
Most Reverend Daniel F. Feehan, a priest of the Springfield Diocese who was
pastor of St. Bernard’s Parish in Fitchburg at the time of his nomination as
bishop. During the twenty-seven years
as ordinary, Bishop Feehan established thirty-six parishes and was especially
devoted to children, giving much attention to the child care institutions of
the diocese and he established an office for charitable and social services.
When Bishop Feehan died in 1934, he
was succeeded by the Most Reverend James E. Cassidy, his Coadjutor Bishop and
Vicar General for many years and since 1930 Auxiliary and Apostolic
Administrator of the diocese. Bishop
Cassidy is remembered as a stern supporter of temperance and a staunch advocate
of the rights of workingmen. He was
concerned for the needs of the elderly and founded homes for the aged, which
became model institutions of their kind.
In 1945 Bishop Cassidy received the assistance of a Coadjutor Bishop,
the Most Reverend James L. Connolly, a Fall River priest who had served for
many years as a professor and then rector of the Seminary in the Archdiocese of
St. Paul. Bishop Cassidy died suddenly on May 17, 1951 and was succeeded by
Bishop Connolly encouraged vocations
to the diocesan priesthood and was devoted to the sick, especially the
incurably ill and to exceptional children. He founded four regional high
schools and the diocesan newspaper, The Anchor. In 1959 the Most Reverend James J. Gerrard was appointed Auxiliary
Bishop. Bishop Connolly attended all
four sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
In 1966 the diocesan chancellor, Monsignor Humberto S. Medeiros, was
ordained Bishop of Brownsville, Texas.
Bishop Medeiros became Archbishop of Boston in 1970 and three years
later he was named a Cardinal. When he
died in 1983 he was buried at his request beside his parents in St. Patrick’s
Cemetery in Fall River.
The Most Reverend Daniel A. Cronin
became the fifth Bishop of Fall River in December 1970 upon the retirement of
Bishop Connolly. Bishop Cronin had
previously served the Holy See in Ethiopia and at the Vatican Secretariat of
State before returning to Boston as Auxiliary Bishop in 1968. Bishop Cronin faithfully and carefully
carried on the work of implementing the decrees of the Second Vatican
Council. He supported liturgical
renewal, continuing education of the clergy and the restoration of the
permanent diaconate. In addition he
devoted himself to the pastoral care of the sick in hospitals, to the expansion
of Catholic Counseling and Social Services, to the Family Life Ministry and
Pro-life activities. Late in 1991 Pope
John Paul II appointed Bishop Cronin Archbishop of Hartford.
On August 11, 1992 the Most
Reverend Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands
was installed sixth Bishop of Fall River. The new bishop had to deal
immediately with a serious case of clerical sexual abuse. This he did forthrightly showing great
compassion and pastoral sensitivity.
Bishop O’Malley, a zealous advocate
of Catholic education, opened three new schools and strengthened the St.
Mary’s Education Fund for students in need of financial assistance to attend
diocesan schools. He also established
an office for AIDS Ministry and dedicated himself to the needs of immigrant
communities, expanded social services, including the establishment of two
residences for women, fostered vocations to the priesthood and reorganized the
diocesan curia or administration. Recognizing changing demographics
and a decreasing number of priests as well as declining Mass attendance,
Bishop O'Malley established the Office of Pastoral Planning to assist the bishop
in making decisions concerning the merging of parishes and the allocating of priest
personnel. In the fall of 2002 Bishop O'Malley was named Bishop of Palm Beach.
On October 22, 2002 the College of Consultors
elected Monsignor George W. Coleman, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia under Bishop
O'Malley, Diocesan Administrator. Monsignor Coleman worked closely with the consultors in the
governance of the vacant diocese. Retired Bishop Joseph F. Maguire of Springfield was invited
to celebrate the Chrism Mass
and bless the Holy Oils in Holy Week of 2003 and shortly after Easter
on April 30, 2003 Monsignor Coleman was named Seventh Bishop of Fall River. His ordination took place
at St. Mary's Cathedral on July 22, 2003. The ordaining prelate was Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo,
Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Daniel F. Cronin and Archbishop-designate of Boston
Sean O'Malley assisted Archbishop Montalvo. Bishop Coleman was ordained a priest of the Diocese
of Fall River in Rome in 1964. He had several pastoral assignments and served as Diocesan
Director of Education. He was pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in East Sandwich when appointed
Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia in 1994. After some study Bishop Coleman made some structural
changes in the Department of Education appointing a director of Faith Formation to oversee
catechetics, youth ministry, RCIA, and more recently Marriage and Family Ministry. The Bishop
has also worked closely with the Office of Pastoral Planning in the difficult work of configuring
parishes and dealing with unused church property. In September 2007 Bishop Coleman was able to
dedicate Pope John Paul II High School in Hyannis fulfilling the long-held dream of many for a
Catholic High School on Cape Cod.
Compiled by Rev. Barry W. Wall, Diocesan