Fall River Diocese celebrates centennial

The last time the borders of the Archdiocese of Boston were changed was in 1872 when Bishop John Williams gave a portion of the diocese to the newly-formed Providence diocese. When the state of Rhode Island was separated from the Diocese of Hartford, Bishop Williams informed the bishops of the province of New York that he did not think there were enough Catholics in the Ocean State alone to support a new diocese. As a solution, he offered to give a significant slice of the southeastern part of the Boston diocese to the new Diocese of Providence.

Many comments are made about Archbishop Williams’ decision to “give away the Cape and the Islands.” Less noted, however, is the reason for a centennial Mass at St. Mary Cathedral in Fall River on March 14: Only 32 years later, the now Archbishop of Boston was leading a discussion among the bishops of Boston about the creation of an entire new diocese from the land given to Providence — Fall River.

On March 12, 1904, Pope Saint Pius X separated the Massachusetts portion of the Providence diocese from its mother see and created a new diocese in southeastern Massachusetts. The see city would be Fall River, and the parish church of St. Mary became the cathedral. At the same time, the pope named a well-liked, energetic young priest of the Providence diocese as the first bishop, Bishop William Stang.

The area that became the new diocese had experienced rapid growth in population, much of it Catholic. French-Canadians, Portuguese and natives of Azores, not a few from the Emerald Isle and some from Italy had made their way to the factories of Fall River, the fishing ports of New Bedford and Provincetown and the mills of Taunton and Attleborough.

During the first 100 years of the Diocese of Fall River, its seven diocesan bishops have seen changes, developed schools, health care facilities, Catholic Charities, programs of outreach and support of the various ethnic groups that still proudly display in festivals, clubs and parishes their particular contributions to the diocese, the commonwealth and the nation.

Bishop George Coleman, the seventh bishop of Fall River, was the principal celebrant of the centennial Mass at St. Mary Cathedral. Among the score of bishops concelebrating with him were the fifth bishop, Archbishop Emeritus of Hartford, Daniel Cronin, and the sixth bishop, Archbishop Seán O’Malley of Boston. Bishop Robert Mulvee of Providence sat in a place of honor reminding all of Providence, the mother diocese.

One cannot help but imagine the gentle and steady Archbishop Williams smiling at the celebration as he pondered the “Boston” connections evident in these bishops: Bishop Coleman studied briefly at the seminary Archbishop Williams founded. Archbishop Cronin had been an auxiliary here. Archbishop O’Malley is his successor in Boston, and Bishop Mulvee is a native son of the archdiocese. Although he “gave away the Cape and the Islands,” many ties between the two sees remain strong.

In his homily, Bishop Coleman focused on the contributions of many lay faithful, women and men religious, priests and bishops — all of whom bore great fruit because they drew water from the well of eternal life, Jesus Christ. The Lenten Sunday gave way briefly to a festive spirit; nearly 200 priests, a corps of permanent deacons, as well as a noticeable presence of women religious were joined by 400 representatives from parishes across the diocese. The choir, which also provided a concert of sacred music preceding the Mass, supported the assembly’s participation.

The diocese hosted a reception at White’s restaurant in neighboring Westport for all attending the Mass. Prior to the sit-down dinner there was ample time and space for people to meet one another and for priests to see brother priests who serve those in the old mill cities on Cape Cod.

At the dinner, several of the bishops spoke briefly. Archbishop O’Malley said he had been instructed to be “brief and light”... so from his seemingly endless repertoire of Irish stories and jokes, he pulled out a few and had the crowd responding as usual. Archbishop Cronin also reminisced about his years as bishop, slipping in a few one-liners.

In the name of the Providence diocese, former auxiliary and bishop-designate of Worcester, Robert McManus suggested that the mother diocese might like to have “the Cape and Islands back, but so as not to seem greedy ‘only from October to May.’”

In closing remarks, Bishop Coleman thanked all who had worked on the Centennial Committee under the chairmanship of Msgr. Daniel Hoye. He also jovially declined Boston’s request for “reannexation.”