Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken

Inducted: 2006
Born: 1827
Died: 1886

Hendricken, Thomas Francis, Bishop, 1827-1886

Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken was born in Ireland just outside the Town of Kilkenny, County Leinster, on May 5, 1827. His father John, descended from a German officer named Hendricken who fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691 for the Catholic cause, was a farmer who scratched an existence from the unyielding soil for his wife and six children before his early death.

Kilkenny merchant, James Fogarty, who had married Mrs. Hendricken’s sister was Impressed by Thomas’s studious nature, Fogarty and his wife took a special interest in him and promoted his formal education. Enrolling at nearby St. Kiernan’s College in 1844, Thomas excelled in his studies–particularly English literature, which became his lifelong interest. Three years later he entered the seminary at Maynooth to begin his journey to the priesthood.

The future bishop was an idealist who dreamed of joining the Jesuits and laboring for God in the missions of China and Japan. His goal was changed by a fateful encounter at Maynooth in 1852 with Bernard O’Reilly, bishop of Hartford–a diocese that then included Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern Massachusetts, but had its seat in Providence. Hendricken’s resultant decision to head west instead of east was the turning point of his life, though he nearly died en route to America.

The first few months of his ministry were hectic. Bishop O’Reilly, a man who shifted his clergy frequently, appointed Hendricken first to the Cathedral, then to St. Joseph’s in Providence, St. Mary’s in Newport, and to St. Joseph’s Church in Winsted, Connecticut, a rural parish covering a fifty-mile area. In July, 1855 Hendricken began a seventeen-year tenure as pastor of St. Patrick’s in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he built a religious complex that became the model parish of its diocese. The youthful pastor, with characteristic zeal and administrative expertise, employed the foremost church architect of the day, Patrick Keely, to erect a new edifice for his growing congregation. Completed in three years, the Gothic structure was the most impressive church in the area. Dedicated by O’Reilly’s successor Bishop Francis McFarland and renamed the Immaculate Conception in honor of the Blessed Virgin, it was the first church in the United States to bear that title following the papal pronouncement of 1854 regarding that miracle.

For his accomplishments in Waterbury, Hendricken received several honors. In 1868 Pope Pius IX named him a doctor of divinity. Earlier he had refused a promotion tendered by Bishop McFarland. In his journal he stated his feelings simply: “I am now satisfied that I will best do the will of God by remaining quietly working and doing whatever good I can, where His will has placed me.”

When the bishops of the Province of New York deliberated upon whom to nominate as first bishop of Providence, they agreed that Hendricken “was the most fitting candidate in every respect, health alone excepted.” Archbishop John McCloskey disregarded Hendricken’s physical infirmity–a severe asthmatic condition–with the startling rationale that “the labors of the new diocese would not be very onerous.”

On April 28, 1872, amidst all the religious splendor of the Church, Father Hendricken was ordained the first bishop of Providence by his sponsor, Archbishop John McCloskey of New York. The immigrant priest who had barely survived his voyage to the United States was now a bishop of his Church. Under Bishop Hendricken, whose fourteen-year episcopacy was marked by strong leadership, immigrant assimilation, and social involvement, the Diocese of Providence expanded physically and witnessed the growth of educational institutions and religious orders.

Hendricken was a “brick and mortar” bishop, one concerned with establishing the physical presence of the Church. His principal project was the construction of the magnificent Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, to which he devoted many years of his administration. Ironically, he died on the eve of the Cathedral’s completion, and his funeral was the first event held in that elegant structure. Hendricken’s “Cathedral dream” was a manifestation of the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice which characterized the faithful of his diocese during the late nineteenth century. Today his memory is best preserved by the prominent and highly-rated high school that bears his name.

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