During the early 19th Century, textile mills, like Grant Mill in the city of Providence, were being built across Rhode Island. The textile industry required hands to work the many machines that produced the new wealth, and Providence’s population grew dramatically with this industrial expansion. From 7,000 inhabitants around 1800, the city had near 20,000 in 1835 and 50,000 in 1860--seven times the 1800 population in three generations.
The pull of the new industries drew people from not just local and regional farms and towns, but from across oceans too. A new wave of immigrants began to pour into Rhode Island in the 1820s, first to build canals and railroads, and later to labor in the mills. This wave was drawn largely from Ireland, reaching a peak during the Irish Famine of the 1840s. In 1860, about 10,000 (or 20%) of the inhabitants of Providence had been born in Ireland. When American-born children of Irish immigrants are included, they made up about 40% of the total population of the city, a radical transformation.
Back in the 1830s, when there were only a few hundred Irish families in Providence, the first Catholic parish in the city was organized to serve the spiritual needs of these new arrivals. Father John Corry, an Irish immigrant himself, was appointed parish priest and began to look for a site to build a church. He found it impossible to buy a plot of land himself. Protestant-dominated Providence did not want to sell land for a Catholic church. Prejudice against Catholicism--and Irish immigrants in particular--was widespread. Francis Hye, one of the few Irish arrivals to become a citizen at the time, was able to purchase a plot along High Street where the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul stands today. He bought the land from Isaac Mathewson in Duty Greene’s store near Hoyle Square, today’s Canonicus Square. When Mathewson learned that Hye intended to transfer the land to the Catholic diocese, the story goes, he offered to buy back the lot at a significant premium, but Corry refused, realizing the value of the land and its position in the westward growing city.
The first Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul--the first Catholic parish in the city serving these new immigrants from Ireland--was dedicated in 1838. In 1872, when Rhode Island was elevated to a Catholic diocese, the newly appointed bishop planned a grand new cathedral to serve the ever-expanding Catholic population of the city. The Cathedral became a monument to the Irish Catholic experience in Providence, facing hostility and prejudice, but ultimately reweaving the fabric of the city to become central to its civic life.
I want to thank Diocesan Historian Reverend Robert Hayman for his hard work assembling a history of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island and his generosity in sharing that work.