On June 8 at White’s of Westport, the Lumen Christi Gala to support the historic Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River will take place. Leading up to the event, Richard Grace compiled a synopsis of the church’s rich history.
St. Mary of the Assumption was a parish church for a half century before it became a Cathedral. It was a beautiful neo-Gothic structure with a very plain interior for several decades, until the windows and stations and sculptures began to appear toward the end of the 19th century. It might be said that the building was well-dressed by the time of its consecration in 1901. Among the new devotional appointments of the stately building was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, created in France, that was placed on a granite pedestal situated between the Lady Chapel and Second Street. On Thanksgiving Day, 1900, with five thousand people thronging the street, the statue was formally blessed by Bishop Harkins of Providence. A month later, a new marble altar, with a relief sculpture of the Last Supper, was installed against the wall of the apse in time for the Masses on Christmas Day. Elevated by three marble steps from the floor of the sanctuary, the altar included a tabernacle with a golden door, and a mosaic reredos (background for the altar).
The solemn consecration, which is not a normal event in the life of every church building, occurred on Sept. 7, 1901. The celebrations were spread over three days and, in the words of Msgr. Barry Wall, Cathedral and diocesan historian, they amounted to a “ceremonial extravaganza.” The early morning ceremony of consecration was followed later in the morning by a Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Northrup of Charleston, S.C., one of the many bishops in attendance for the ceremonies. Solemn Vespers were sung that evening and repeated on the following evening, with a choir of 80 voices and an orchestra of 28 pieces. No celebration on this scale had ever been witnessed in the city prior to this moment in 1901.
Thus, consecrated and recently beautified with new windows and sculptures and painted ceiling, St. Mary’s was ready for its next great event — its designation as Cathedral of the new Diocese of Fall River, in 1904. Having been part of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., for the past 32 years, the new diocese was created by Pope Pius X on March 12, 1904. A German-born priest of the Providence Diocese, named William Stang, was chosen to be the first bishop of the new diocese. He took possession of his new See on May 8, 1904, with St. Mary’s being the location of his cathedra (the bishop’s chair). At the Solemn Pontifical Mass that morning, the church was bulging with attendees, while thousands stood outside.
From a reviewing stand erected in front of the Cathedral rectory, Bishop Stang watched a parade of memorable proportions march by for nearly an hour that afternoon, with people from all over the diocese taking part in what one local newspaper called a “monster demonstration.” Solemn Vespers were sung that evening, and the day came to a roaring conclusion with a display of fireworks in the rectory yard.
Bishop Stang died at age 53, in 1907, less than three years after his consecration as Bishop of Fall River. At that time he was buried in the church yard, but now rests in the episcopal crypt under the Bishop’s Chapel. Since his death, seven successors have ascended the cathedra at St. Mary’s: Bishops Daniel Feehan (1907-1934); James Cassidy (1934-1951); James Connolly (1951-1970); Daniel Cronin (1970-1992); Sean O’Malley, O.F.M., Cap. (1992-2002); George Coleman (2003-2014); Edgar da Cunha, S.D.V. (2014-present).
Since becoming the Cathedral, the interior of the Cathedral has undergone major changes, most notably in 1912 and in 1951. In the first instance, during the time when Father Cassidy was rector, the sanctuary, which was very small, was enlarged to accommodate the needs of episcopal ceremonies. Seven rows of pews were removed from the front, so that the space was extended slightly more than the width of one arch. A new bronze altar rail was installed, and the beautiful carved wooden screens were installed in the sanctuary, with the bishop’s chair attached to the screen on the left side.
The next major renovation occurred in 1951, when the church was closed for eight months, with the parish services being held at the Casino arena on Morgan Street. Preliminary studies revealed that delaying the necessary maintenance was impossible, for the foundations under the sanctuary and the main altar were decaying. In the course of this restoration of the building, the side galleries, by now a century old, were removed. The effect of that work was to brighten the interior of the church by allowing light to stream through the stained-glass windows along the aisle walls. In addition, the choir loft was extended from wall to wall, and when a new organ was installed, the casework was divided so as to expose three lancet windows which had been previously obstructed. Additional restoration and renovation occurred in 1979 and 2000, which included removing the altar from its location against the apse wall in order to establish the new altar in the middle of the sanctuary so that the celebrant would be facing the people and relocating the bishop’s cathedra in the place where the old altar had been.
Among the many modernizations of the building, one of the most consequential occurred during the years when Father Christopher Hughes was pastor (1887-1907), when electric lighting was installed in the sanctuary and the nave, replacing the old gas lamps, at a time when the country was in the early stages of a revolution in energy sources.
In the 118 years since St. Mary’s became the Cathedral, the church has been home to the parish for its normal life, but also the site of major events drawing people from all over the diocese. The installations of the bishops were to be among the most dramatic ceremonies, for all eight of the bishops to date, but there have been many memorable occasions of local or diocesan importance, such as the dedication of a new day nursery in 1910 at the White Sisters Convent one block from the Cathedral, when Bishop Feehan celebrated Mass and joined the procession down the street to dedicate the new building in the name of the late Bishop Stang.
Other instances include bishops’ being consecrated at St. Mary’s for the episcopacy elsewhere, such as Father Frederick Donaghy, a New Bedford native and a member of the Maryknoll order, who was consecrated at the Cathedral in 1939 by Bishop Cassidy, Bishop (later Cardinal ) Cushing of Boston and Bishop Walsh of Maryknoll. He served in the missions in China.
Similarly, Msgr. Humberto Medeiros, a native of Fall River, was ordained by Bishop Connolly as Bishop of Brownsville, Texas, in 1966. He returned to Massachusetts four years later as Archbishop of Boston.
The Cathedral welcomes people from throughout the city and the diocese on a yearly basis — such as the recipients of the Marion Medal each autumn, the Romeiros pilgrims on Good Friday, the St. Pius X Youth Awards honorees each year during the Easter season, or people of various faith communities for the service of Tenebrae during Holy Week — as just some of the special occasions.
As the mother church, St. Mary of the Assumption is a home for the faithful of the whole diocese, and serves that mission with great frequency, with all the attendant costs of maintenance and repair.
To learn more about attending and supporting the event and to purchase tickets visit: www.catholicfoundationsema.org/Cathedral-gala or scan the QR code with your mobile device.
Richard J. Grace is Professor Emeritus at Providence College, where he has been a member of the faculty for 56 years. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Fordham University, and he has been a member of St. Mary’s Cathedral parish for his entire life.