Saint Stephen’s Church in Providence: The History of a New England Tractarian Parish

By Norman Joseph Catir, Jr.

Providence, Rhode Island: St. Stephen’s Church, 1964.




A ONE HUNDRED and twenty-fifth anniversary is a noteworthy event. For an institution like a parish it may mean much more than the rounding out of 125 years of life; it may be a significant milestone in a much longer journey. For members of Saint Stephen’s Church this anniversary is the occasion of rejoicing and gratitude to Almighty God for many blessings. We thank Him for the good example of many faithful servants of Our Blessed Lord who have been pioneers in the building of the parish, who have borne the burden and heat of the day, who have labored and sacrificed, who have made secure and beautiful the spiritual home in which we have our place today.

The anniversary is also the threshold of a new era. In looking forward to the future of our parish we find three things confronting us: a responsibility, an opportunity, and a challenge. The responsibility is to Our Lord, to be faithful stewards of the Mysteries of Christ, maintaining the Catholic heritage which has come to us through the past years. The opportunity is found in our possession of the manifold privileges of the Church, the spiritual weapons with which to fight the good fight of faith. The challenge is the world’s crying need today of the saving Gospel of Christ to all peoples; the very magnitude of the Church’s present task challenges the best of which we are, with God’s help, capable—in faith and consecration, in sacrifice and in labor.

The history of the parish serves a double purpose. It provides a record of the living faith and patient labors of those who during the past years have made Saint Stephen’s Church what it is today; but it should also be a spur and a stimulus to us and to those who follow us, to carry on—not merely to maintain a noble tradition, but to take our part, each one of us, in the life of the Church, until the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Church.

The history of Saint Stephen’s Church is a record of shining and unsparing labor on the part of a great company of men and women, priests and laity, for Christ and His Church, which constitutes for us today a truly glorious heritage. We must do our best to be worthy of it; we must hand it unimpaired to those who follow us; and we must do this in the only way such a highly personal task can ever be achieved, by putting into use and wider circulation the spiritual treasure that is ours, received through the instrumentality of our parish, but coming originally from Christ to us, not as owners, but as trustees, as stewards in the Kingdom of God.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, in November, 1839, Saint Stephen’s Church came into existence. Born of a true missionary impulse and spirit, it was from the very first strong in the faith, however weak in material things. Her priests ardently believed and systematically taught as truths of fundamental importance the great doctrines of the Incarnation, of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, of the Apostolic Ministry as the divinely appointed means for the perpetuation of the Catholic Faith in the world, and of the Seven Sacraments as the divinely appointed means of supernatural grace.

The laymen who formed the nucleus of the parish were also embued with strong Church principles. There have been occasional flurries on the surface—differences of opinion in secondary matters—but there has never been a radical break in the continuity of Catholic teaching on the part of the priests of Saint Stephen’s Church, nor in the daily services which have been held throughout the years.

From 1866 the Mass has been celebrated weekly as well as on the great festivals. In 1886 the offering of the Holy Sacrifice was celebrated daily. Consequently, with the strong Church teaching, the constant emphasis on worship, the abundant opportunities for it which have been offered from the beginning to the present day, Saint Stephen’s Church has definitely stood for the great essentials of the Catholic Faith, and has steadily grown in Catholic practice. There has been a steadiness about the life of the parish which is very striking; it has never gone off on tangents or passing fads, has never been daunted by hardship and financial difficulties, has been unmoved by ridicule and abuse (of which it has had its share). There is also a wholesomeness about her life history which is most refreshing: Saint Stephen’s Church has not been concerned with the "trimmings" of religion. Doctrine and practice came first; ceremonial followed naturally, but always in its proper place, as an appropriate accompaniment and expression of the worship of Almighty God. Never apparently has there been even the disposition to make it an end in itself.

There has also been a fine balance between faith and works in the life of the parish, a balance which we must try ever to maintain. The inspiration and power received from teaching, worship, and Sacraments have been put to work, have been kept in circulation in the lives of others, and have borne manifold fruits in good works. The roll of these works is long and honorable as they appear in their various settings in the unfolding pages of the history of the parish, from the establishment of Saint Mary’s Home for Children and the active participation in the foundation of Saint Thomas’ Church, Greenville, Saint Mary’s Church, East Providence, Epiphany Church, Providence, Saint Paul’s Church, Providence, Saint Barnabas’ Church, Warwick, and Holy Nativity Church, Thornton, down to the present with our efforts to do our part in meeting the needs, spiritual and material, of Christ Church, Providence, and in facing the urban problems confronting the Church. All this is an indication of the balance of faith and works that has always been characteristic of the parish.

Saint Stephen’s Church has raised up many sons and daughters whose lives and deeds we delight to know, and whose good example we pray we may worthily follow. Their service for Christ and His Church has far outstripped parish bounds and is known in the Diocese and in the Church at large. Their faithfulness has borne abundant fruit. To God be the praise; to us may grace be given to follow in their steps.

The future lies hidden in God’s love and wisdom. What may be in store for this Western world we know not, but we have Our Lord’s own promise that against His Church even the powers of hell shall not prevail. So we may be confident that we shall have a work to do in the years that lie ahead, as our fathers had in the 125 years past.

In the Name of Our Blessed Lord and in the power of God’s grace, we and our successors in this parish must faithfully endeavor to do our part in bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth.