By Msgr. Barry W. Wall, Special to The Anchor

Growth: The Second St. Mary’s Church, St. Mary’s Cemetery

Father Thomas R. McNulty, a native of County Armagh, Ireland replaced Father Maguire in March of 1846. Three years later he was able to purchase the former Universalist Church at Fifth (Pleasant) and School streets in the center of the city. The old church was divided in two and sold. One portion of the venerable building survives as part of a dwelling on Forest Street. The site continued to serve as a cemetery until 1856.

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., delivers a homily at the 200th anniversary Mass of St. Lawrence Parish on November 21 in New Bedford. (Photo by Lisa Barrera Lemieux.)

In 1953 the McMahon Assembly Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus with the kind cooperation of Mrs. Helen Aubertine placed a monument, a granite boulder with bronze plaque at Allen and Orchard streets, the site of the original church which had become the property of the Aubertine Funeral Home. On October 12, clergy and faithful from neighboring parishes gathered for the dedication with the vicar general, Msgr. James J. Gerrard, presiding. In 1956 Msgr. Gerrard became pastor of St. Lawrence Parish, and in 1959 auxiliary bishop.  

In the fall of 1849 New Bedford received a visit from Father Theobald Matthew, OFM, Cap. An internationally known preacher on behalf of Temperance. He was invited by civic leaders and was enthusiastically received by Protestants and Catholics alike.

Father Henry Edward Stephen Henniss succeeded Father McNulty in December 1853. He had grown up in Philadelphia and worked as a newspaper man before graduating from the College of the Holy Cross. He was ordained for the Diocese of Boston in Montreal the year before. In New Bedford he was admired by many beyond his parish for his dedication and ability. Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick, the third Bishop of Boston found him to be “a man of fine natural talents and extensive literary and scientific attainments — a most worthy clergyman.” 

In 1856 Father Henniss purchased seven acres of land on the New Bedford–Dartmouth line for a cemetery and in the spring undertook the stressful work of transferring the earthly remains of those interred at the Allen Street churchyard to the new St. Mary’s Cemetery. Recognizing the need to plan for a larger and permanent church he purchased land at County and Hillman streets with this in mind.

The untimely death of Father Henniss at age 37 on Sept. 21, 1859 from terminal illness saddened many in the city. Father Henniss has left hand-written “Notes” on the history of the New Bedford mission and of the church on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Fathers McNulty and Henniss were accustomed to visit Nantucket four times a year. In 1856 Father Henniss purchased Harmony Hall which became Nantucket’s first Catholic Church. He also reported he visited Martha’s Vineyard twice a year where there were about 40 Catholics.

Father Joseph P. Tallon, a native of County Carlow, succeeded Father Henniss whose assistant he was for two years. He had plans for a brick church but sadly died in his 32nd year in 1864 with his plans unfulfilled. He lies buried next Father Henniss in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Textile manufacturing was beginning to replace whaling, as a major industry, providing jobs for the increasing number of immigrants from Ireland, England, Portugal and French Canada. Sacramental registers reveal that Baptisms which numbered 45 for the year 1845 rose to 192 in 1855.

Continued Growth: St. Lawrence Church

Not until after the Civil War could a new church be built. The new pastor, Father Lawrence Stephen McMahon who was ordained in 1860 arrived in January 1865 from St. Thomas Parish in Bridgewater. He began work on a church, engaging architect Patrick C. Keeley who designed a church in Gothic style to be built of native granite from Sullivan’s Quarry on Hathaway Road. On March 17, 1869 Father McMahon blessed St. Patrick’s Chapel. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day 1870 and on Aug. 13, 1871 the new church was dedicated by Bishop John J. Williams of Boston in honor of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of the pastor. 

By now the nine parishes and six mission chapels of Southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape and the Islands had passed into the care of Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken of the new Diocese of Providence in 1872. Father McMahon became the vicar general, and in 1879 he was named fifth Bishop of Hartford and ordained on August 10.

Throughout his life Bishop McMahon was known for his care of immigrants. In New Bedford he assisted in any way he could the French Canadian and Portuguese communities especially the priests who came to minister to them. In the summer of 1866, he welcomed into his rectory on School Street a Portuguese priest, Father Antonio Felisberto Diaz, who arrived seriously ill and died a month later on September 13, without ever officiating publicly. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. 

The parish of St. John the Baptist for Portuguese parishioners was formally established in 1871 and Sacred Heart Parish, the first for French Canadians in 1876.

Later divisions of St. Lawrence Parish came with the founding of St. James Parish in 1888, St. Kilian’s Parish in 1896, and Holy Name in 1909. The first Holy Name Church at County and Studley streets was built in 1897 as mission of St. Lawrence.

Shortly after Father McMahon became pastor a benefactor approached Bishop Hendricken about establishing a hospital in the Russell mansion, a substantial granite building at Pleasant and Campbell streets, The bishop placed Father McMahon in charge of the project. There is a brief entry in the bishop’s diary saying that three Sisters of Mercy left Providence at one o’clock for New Bedford to prepare to open a hospital. The date was Mach 19, 1873. The hospital would be named for St. Joseph. The convent would be the first house for religious established in the present Diocese of Fall River.

Msgr. Hugh Smyth: The Sisters and the Schools

Bishop McMahon’s successor at St. Lawrence was Father Hugh J. Smyth; born in County Cavan, Ireland he was ordained in Montreal for the Diocese of Boston in 1870 and appointed first pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Taunton in 1873. Coming to New Bedford in 1879 he served as pastor of St. Lawrence for 42 years. He saw to the completion of the church tower and on Dec. 16, 1888, Bishop Matthew Harkins of Providence consecrated a chime of 14 bells, cast in Baltimore. The bells were named: Sacred Heart, Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Lawrence, St. Patrick, and the nine choirs of angels.

In 1883 a parish school was completed at Linden and County streets, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. It provided Catholic education from primary grades through high school. It was named in honor of St. Joseph. Two years later an identical school was constructed at Purchase and Wing streets called St. Mary’s. A third school was built next to St. Lawrence Church in 1902 called Holy Family School. In 1904 the high school grades that started at St. Joseph School were introduced at Holy Family. A separate high school building was built next the grammar school and dedicated by Bishop Daniel F. Feehan in 1914.

The Massachusetts portion of the Diocese of Providence became the Diocese of Fall River. The first bishop, William Stang was ordained in Providence on May 1, 1904 and installed and welcomed to Fall River a week later. Father Hugh J. Smyth became the vicar general of the new diocese and received the title of Monsignor in 1905. The present main altar, the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the stain glass windows, and pipe organ were all provided in the church renovation directed by Msgr. Smyth in 1905 and 1906. The lighted clock, striking the hour in the bell tower also dates from this time and was the gift of Dr. Stephen W. Hayes, who was the medical director of St. Joseph Hospital.

Msgr. John F. McKeon

Msgr. Smyth observed the Golden Jubilee of his ordination on Dec. 18, 1920. He died several weeks later on Feb. 4, 1921. His successor was announced a month later; Father John F, McKeon, pastor of St. William’s Parish in Fall River, a native of North Attleborough who was ordained in the final days of the 19th century, Dec. 22, 1899. He received the title of Monsignor in 1940. Msgr. McKeon’s tenure embraced the years of economic depression and the Second World War, in which 10 men from the parish made the supreme sacrifice. 

The highlight of this era was the solemn consecration of St. Lawrence Church. This formal dedication was long desired by Msgr. Smyth and Msgr. McKeon and now was fulfilled by Bishop James L. Connolly on Nov. 11, 1953. During the rite the bishop enclosed in the altar a relic of St. Lawrence which he had recently brought from Rome. Following the consecration, a Solemn Pontifical Mass was celebrated by Bishop Raymond A. Lane, superior general of Maryknoll, assisted by priests who were natives of the parish or who had served in the parish over the years. Father William A. Donaghy, S.J. was the preacher. 

Msgr. McKeon died on April 16, 1956 and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in North Attleborough.

Bishop James J. Gerrard 

As mentioned above, Msgr. McKeon’s successor was Msgr. James J. Gerrard, V.G., rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River. Msgr. Gerrard was native of St. James Parish and a member of the graduating class of 1914 of Holy Family High School. Msgr. Gerrard directed a church renovation project involving new lighting, the painting of the church interior and the installation of a beautiful stain glass window of the Holy Family over the main entrance which could be seen in all its beauty from inside the church above the organ in the choir loft. It was the work of Connick Associates and the gift of Mrs. Joseph T. Kenney Sr.

Three years after becoming pastor Msgr. Gerrard was named auxiliary bishop and ordained by Bishop James L. Connolly on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1959. Bishop Gerrard attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and had the task of implementing the Council decrees in the parish. On Oct. 18, 1972, Bishop Daniel A. Cronin accepted Bishop Gerrard’s resignation and retirement as pastor, which he tendered on his 75th birthday, June 9, 1972. Bishop Gerrard died at the Catholic Memorial Home in Fall River on June 4, 1991

Father John P. Driscoll 

Father John P. Driscoll replaced Bishop Gerrard as pastor. He was known to many having served as assistant in the parish from 1950 to 1954. For many years he was the editorial writer for The Anchor. Father Driscoll’s pastoral style was a one-on-one ministry. Long before Pope Francis, he was reaching out to those on the margins.

Early in 1973 a letter from the pastor, assistants and Parish Trustees informed parishioners that in June 1974 the Sisters of Mercy would end their commitment to Holy Family High School which had existed since 1904. Provincial officials said the decision had been made three years ago and must now be implemented. With the support of Bishop Cronin Father Driscoll announced the parish high school would continue under lay administration. The school closed in 1985, having celebrated together with its predecessor, St. Joseph High School, more than 100 years of Catholic secondary education in New Bedford. 

The apostolate of the Catholic school was to be a significant part of Father Driscoll’s ministry. In 1973 Holy Name School merged with Holy Family Grammar School. In 1977 the parish acquired the nearby public school, Carney Academy, and in September the students of Holy Family-Holy Name School and Holy Family High School moved to the new school, 12 grades under one roof with an auditorium. This was important. The funds allowing the parish to purchase the school were from a specific bequest made years before by John Barrett for a high school auditorium. Holy Family-Holy Name School has continued to flourish and to be a significant part of the life of the parish in Father Driscoll’s time and beyond under the wise direction of Cecilia M. Felix and her successors.

In December 1992 the Missionaries of Charity took up residence at 556 County Street, opposite the church. On June 14, 1995 the Sisters were visited by their foundress, Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa attended Mass celebrated by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM, Cap. and at the conclusion of the Mass she spoke to the assembled concelebrating priests, the deacons, religious, parishioners, people from near and far, and civic officials.

On Dec. 22, 1996, Bishop O’Malley again celebrated Mass at St. Lawrence to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the parish; he presented to Father Driscoll, beautifully framed, Mother Teresa’s hand written letter of thanks for the hospitality of the bishop, clergy, religious and faithful at the time of her visit.

Father John M. Sullivan

In June of 2021 close to his 77th birthday Father Driscoll retired after more than 28 years as pastor. He was succeeded by Father John M. Sullivan who had been his assistant for a year. Let it be noted that here at the beginning of the new millennium St. Lawrence Parish was welcoming only its sixth pastor since the Civil War! During Father Sullivan’s time, in 2003, the parish celebrated the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the church. As part of the celebration a wonderful pictorial history of the parish accompanied by the reflections of several parishioners was published by a dedicated committee. Bishop George W. Coleman was the principal celebrant of the anniversary Mass celebrated on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003.

 In 2002 the parish rejoiced with the ordination to the permanent diaconate of Maurice A. Ouellette who was appointed to assist Father Sullivan.

Over the years more than 60 priests have served the parish as curates or assistant priests. As to be expected their talents and abilities were varied and many. Three come to mind: Father John P. Clarke served from 1917 to 1931. During that time St. Theresa of the Child Jesus was canonized by Pope Pius XI during the Holy Year of 1925. Father Clarke had great devotion to St. Theresa. He wrote two or three small books about her life and Spirituality, and about a possible miraculous healing in the parish through her intercession. Devotion to the new saint began to spread.

Father McKeon began a renovation of the church interior at this time which included the present beautiful shrine of St. Theresa which was dedicated in May 1928. Here, for many years, devotions were held every Tuesday. Father Clarke was replaced in 1931 by Father Thomas C. Gunning, who served until his death from heart disease in 1947. He was a man of breathless energy and popular with young people. Throughout the Second World War Father Gunning corresponded with countless young men from the parish or Holy Family High School who had entered military service and were serving in Europe, North Africa or the South Pacific. It was said his pockets were filled with little slips of paper with the addresses of soldiers, sailors and marines. In the final months of the war, he was joined at St. Lawrence Rectory by the newly-ordained Father John F. Hogan, who served from 1945 to 1957. Among young people and high school students he was a worthy successor to Father Gunning but in fact Father Hogan charmed young and old alike, including many in the Jewish and Protestant communities.

In 2009 Father Sullivan became pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham. His successors at St. Lawrence are Father Marek Chmurski (2009-2013), Father Robert J. Powell (2013-2018), Father Robert A. Oliveira, pastor of Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish; administrator of St. Lawrence (2018 -2019), and Father Michael S. Racine, a member of St. Lawrence Parish at the time of his ordination in 1995; appointed pastor of Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Lawrence Parishes in 2019; these parishes together with Holy Family Holy-Name School make up what is now known as the Whaling City Catholic Community.