New Bedford was a city of smokestacks. The coal-fired boilers that powered the textile mills left a layer of gritty soot that seemed to cover everything. This legacy of industrialization is still visible on the darkened redstone exterior of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, which has served the North End’s French Canadian and immigrant populations since 1912.
By 1900, first- and second-generation immigrants made up 70% of New Bedford’s population, and 33% of the city’s foreign-born residents were French Canadian. In 1912 alone, more than 12,241 French Canadian immigrants moved to New Bedford, helping to swell the city’s population to more than 96,000 people. In the late 19th century, most French-speaking Catholics attended Sacred Heart Church, a considerable distance from the North End where many French Canadians worked in textile mills and lived in three-decker tenements.
In 1895, the newly-formed parish of St. Anthony of Padua met in North Union Hall, a block away from the current location of the church. The following year, the parish built a new wood-frame church, a three-story brick rectory, and a grammar school, followed two years later by a convent to house the school’s ordained teachers. Simultaneously, the parish began to raise funds for a substantial stone cathedral, and construction began in 1903.
On the afternoon of September 20, 1904, a loud rumble and cloud of dust filled the air at the building site. A fifty-foot high masonry wall had collapsed, killing two workers, Gilbert Tremblay and Joseph Rondeau, and injuring five others. The architect, Joseph Venne of Montreal, arrived two days later to inspect the damage, but was unable to determine a cause of the failure. Construction continued under the supervision of Fall River architect and French Canadian immigrant Louis G. Destremps, and the church was dedicated in November 1912.
When parishioners passed through the massive front doors, they left behind the soot of the city and entered a sanctuary of divine beauty. 5,500 electric light bulbs—still a novelty in 1912—illuminated a 65-foot high vaulted ceiling. The rows of pews could accommodate 1,840 worshippers, watched over by thirty-two sculpted angels by Italian artist Giovanni Castagnoli. The Great Vision of Saint Anthony, a grouping of sculptures by Castagnoli, soars sixty feet behind the main altar, and 117 stained glass windows surround worshippers, including a triptych window of 370 square feet. Outside, the main steeple rises 256 feet and is visible from most parts of the city.
Reflecting the demographics of its parishioners, St. Anthony’s first three pastors were born in Quebec, and the first six were of French Canadian descent. Today, St. Anthony’s offers a weekly mass in Spanish, serving its parishioners from Central America, the most recent group of immigrants seeking a better life in New Bedford.