The Origin of Providence College
The original idea to establish a Catholic college in Rhode Island belonged to Right Rev. Thomas Hendricken, D.D., the first bishop of Providence (1872-1886). During the 1870s, he invited the Society of Jesus to come to Providence with this in mind. The Jesuits accepted his offer and settled in as administrators at St. Joseph’s Parish on the city’s East Side in April 1877. (The pastor of that parish had passed away in February of that year.)
However, after 22 years in Providence, the Jesuits withdrew from the diocese in 1899 without starting a college. As reported in the Providence Visitor, the diocesan newspaper of the time, “The Jesuits felt that such a college was out of the question. The two Jesuit colleges in Boston (Boston College) and Worcester (College of the Holy Cross) should not be endangered by such a needless and doubtful venture.”
In April 1887, Right Rev. Matthew D. Harkins, D.D. became bishop of Providence. He, too, hoped to found a Catholic college in the city. Knowing that the Jesuits had already declined the offer to do so, Bishop Harkins turned to the Dominican Order on the strength of relationships he had established at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. (Bishop Harkins was a committee member of The Catholic University of America’s Board of Trustees. The Dominican House of Studies is adjacent to the campus of that institution.)
Bishop Harkins petitioned the Dominican Order to establish a college in Providence and, on Nov. 24, 1910, Rev. Matthew L. Haegen, O.P., the Dominican provincial of the Province of St. Joseph (which included Rhode Island), placed the petition before the Provincial Council, which approved it. Father Haegen wrote to Rev. Hyacinthe Cormier, O.P., the master of the Dominican Order, on Jan. 7, 1911, to report the Provincial Council’s acceptance of the bishop’s offer to found a college. In that letter, the council asked that this endeavor be postponed for a few years until it had enough priests/professors to handle the task.
Father Cormier did not approve the college, but he did give permission for the Order to establish a new parish in the city at the bishop’s invitation to do so (St. Raymond’s Parish, on what is now North Main Street at the Providence/Pawtucket city line). Father Haegen did not pursue the idea of a Catholic college in Providence any further. On Oct. 11, 1913, Father James R. Meagher, O.P. was elected to succeed Father Haegen as provincial and, in him, “Bishop Harkins found…his pragmatic builder and the instrument by which his idea for a college would come into being.”
Bishop Harkins wrote to Father Cormier in spring 1915, asking permission for the Order to start a college in his diocese. In fall 1915, Father Meagher wrote to Bishop Harkins, explaining that the Order was responding to a study of the province’s finances by officials in Rome to ensure it could handle an undertaking as large as starting a college. Bishop Harkins, acting on Father Meagher’s advice, wrote a formal invitation attached to a letter to Father Meagher, dated Oct. 9, 1915, which included a few maps showing the exact location of 11 acres of land for the college. In that letter, the bishop also promised $10,000 in scholarships for the college. This petition is considered the classic document of the origin of Providence College.
The petition was laid before the Dominican Intermediate Chapter at its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 1915. The chapter voted to accept the bishop’s offer of the land and scholarships. Father Meagher wrote a similar letter to Father Cormier, also dated Oct. 11, 1915, asking for his permission to move forward. His letter suggested that, “the college will be a most fertile field for vocations to our Order …” This was followed by another letter from Father Meagher to Father Cormier, dated Oct. 17, 1915, in which he fervently sought the master’s permission to found a college in Providence.
On Nov. 8, 1915, the Italian-American liner Ancona sailed for New York City from Naples, Italy. It carried a mail satchel containing the Acts of the Intermediate Chapter of the Province of St. Joseph (permission to found the college) stamped with the approval of the master of the Order. One day later, the ship was torpedoed by an Austrian submarine and sank. Two hundred seventy lives were lost, including 27 American citizens, along with all cargo and mail. And so, World War I delayed the founding of Providence College.
Father Meagher obtained a new copy of the Acts some months later and informed Bishop Harkins on Jan. 29, 1916, that the province had permission to start a college in Providence. Although he had given permission for the province to found the College, Father Cormier never initiated the steps necessary to secure official permission from the Vatican – the papal approval known as the Beneplaticum Apostolicum. That did not come until 1917 and only because Father Louis Thiessling, O.P., who was now the master of the Order – having been elected as such in August 1916 – initiated that process.
Much of the material used in this story was drawn from “The Origins and Early History of Providence College Through 1947,” the dissertation of the late Dr. Donna T. McCaffrey ’73G, ’83 Ph.D., and ’87G, former PC associate professor of history, which was published in 1985.