Bishop Russell J. McVinney (1948-1971) assumed spiritual direction of the diocese — the only Rhode Island native to hold that post. During his episcopacy the Church made impressive material gains which attest to McVinney’s administrative expertise. His tenure was a period in which Rhode Island Catholicism expanded its social role. As the immigrants began their slow but inexorable move up the socioeconomic ladder, the Church turned a sympathetic hand to the plight of the black community. These efforts, beginning with the establishment of the Catholic Interracial Council (1951) and the opening of the Martin de Porres Center (1954), were intensified by the civil rights revolution. By the mid-sixties the bishop, in conjunction with several zealous urban priests, had embarked upon a program of quiet social activism which extended beyond the confines of the Catholic community.
In the field of education, the Catholic school system achieved a new high in the number of schools and pupils by 1960, only to experience a precipitous decline during the next two decades owing to the convergence of many factors, including the exodus to suburbia, the decline in vocations, the advantage given to public education by government funding, and constitutional obstructions against public aid to Catholic education. Presently the condition of the elementary school system has stabilized, with the first enrollment increase in seventeen years recorded in 1980.
Bishop McVinney was confronted with the enormous challenge of presiding over the Church in an age of social, educational, liturgical, and attitudinal flux. Despite his basically traditional posture, he met this challenge extraordinarily well, and next to Matthew Harkins, McVinney ranks as the man who exerted the most significant and beneficial impact on Rhode Island Catholicism.
For Further Reading on Rhode Island Catholicism, see:
Conley, Patrick, T. Rhode Island Catholicism: A Historical Guide. Providence: Diocese of Providence, 1984.
Hayman, Robert W. Catholicism in Rhode Island. Providence: Diocese of Providence, 1982.