Fitton, James, 1805-1881
Reverend James Fitton was one of New England’s foremost Catholic missionary priests. The energetic and seemingly ubiquitous Fitton was a driving force in the development of Rhode Island Catholicism establishing twenty widely-scattered parishes and serving in every major area of early Irish settlement including Newport, Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and the Pawtuxet Valley.
Fitton was born in Boston, the son of Abraham Fitton, a wheelwright and Sarah Williams. Inspired by his parents, he became an acolyte in Holy Cross Cathedral where Bishop John de Cheverus encouraged him to enter the priesthood. He was ordained in 1827 and began his duties as a missionary to the Passamaquoddy Indians of Maine. After itinerant work throughout New England which included preaching, writing religious pamphlets, editing a Catholic newspaper in Hartford, establishing parishes and mission stations, and founding (with his mentor Bishop Benedict Fenwick) Holy Cross College, Fitton was given a permanent assignment in Newport as the pastor of St. Mary’s–Rhode Island’s oldest parish. With support from parishioners, wealthy Catholic benefactors, noted architect Patrick Keeley, and troops at Fort Adams under future Civil War general William Roscrans, Fitton built the present St. Mary’s Church (1849), an ornate and impressive Gothic Revival structure that has become one of the Rhode Island’s most famous church buildings.
In 1855, Fitton returned to Boston where he continued his varied religious, educational, and literary works until his death in 1881 at the age of seventy-six. This dynamic priest was properly eulogized as a heroic figure among Catholics in six states and “the great missionary of New England.”