Although not mentioned in diocesan histories, there may have been Catholics in Bristol County prior to the establishment (in 1844) of the Diocese of Hartford, which included all of Rhode Island and Connecticut. The newly-consecrated bishop, William Tyler, (who took up his abode in Providence rather than Hartford) had between three and six priests to attend to the needs of his widely-scattered flock; when he died in 1849, the number had jumped to 14.
The 1840s, however, witnessed a great influx of Catholics to southern New England from Ireland, Germany, France, and Quebec, one estimate being 5,180 Roman Catholics in Rhode Island alone at mid-decade. The small number of priests visited the growing groups of the faithful as time allowed, celebrating Mass and giving the sacraments where and when they could, whether in a private home or a public building. The Reverend Patrick Mallon, a native of Ireland, was one such priest known to have occasionally attended to the spiritual needs of Catholics in the East Bay in the late 1840s.
By 1850, there were almost 450 Catholics in Bristol County and nearby Swansea, about 8% of the county population. The following year, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly created the first parish in the region, and, on August 14th, purchased a rectangle of land on the southwest corner of Main and Luther Streets in Warren for the parish church, which would be centrally located within a 4-mile radius of most of the Catholic population of the county. The new parish was assigned to Reverend Hilary Tucker, a native Midwesterner with a penchant for forming and funding communities of the faithful. Fr. Tucker promptly named his new parish “St. Mary of the Bay”, and wrote in the front of his parish registers, “August 15, 1851. St. Mary of the Bay. Warren, Bristol, Barneytown [sic] and Barrington.”
Rev. Hilary Tucker (1808-1872), c. 1870. First pastor of St. Mary of the Bay.
St. Mary of the Bay Church, 1851
The ground for the church was consecrated on Sunday, September 28th, and construction began immediately. The wooden building was a rectangle, 36 feet wide by 66 feet long, in the Gothic style, and would seat 300 people. Work continued through the rest of the autumn and early winter, and on Sunday, January 11, 1852, Bishop O’Reilly dedicated the church “to the worship of Almighty God under the patronage of the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.”
Within the year of assuming the pastorate of St. Mary of the Bay, Father Tucker transferred to the Diocese of Boston, and a newly-ordained priest, the Reverend Patrick Lambe, served as pastor until May 1854, when he was assigned to Saint Patrick’s church in Providence. In his stead came Reverend Michael McCallion, a native of Ireland, who was not long out of his studies in a Baltimore seminary. Something of a real estate mogul, Father McCallion bought the land and house just south of the church for a rectory in 1856; a two-and-one-half acre plot of land on Crane’s Lane (Vernon Street) in 1858 for the first Catholic cemetery in the area; and various other parcels and buildings in Warren, Barrington, and Swansea.
St. Mary of the Bay Church with improvements added in 1867. The Rectory is next door, colored in blue; another house owned by Fr. McCallion is behind the church, colored in beige. All three buildings were destroyed in the fire of 1881.
The substantial growth of the Catholic population in Bristol County, with the majority living in the town of Bristol, led Bishop O’Reilly to purchase land and build a mission chapel there, which he dedicated in October 1855. Father McCallion served at both churches, while maintaining his residence in Warren.
The following year saw the birth of a son to James and Catherine Doran of Barrington who was baptized in St. Mary of the Bay. Ordained to the priesthood in 1880, Thomas Francis Doran became the first Auxiliary Bishop of Providence in 1915.
The years after the Civil War saw many changes for the Catholics of Rhode Island and of Warren. In 1868, the Rhode Island General Assembly allowed parishes in the state to incorporate. St. Mary of the Bay had long been known as “St. Mary’s”; in 1869, the parish incorporated under the name “St. Mary’s Church, Warren, Rhode Island.” Until 1970, the parish and church would be known as St. Mary’s.
Even more significant was the formation of the Diocese of Providence in 1872. The population growth in both Connecticut and Rhode Island had been phenomenal in the previous two decades; the same could be said for southern Massachusetts with its huge influx of French Canadians and Açoreans. Bishop Francis McFarland, who had succeeded Bishop O’Reilly, realized that the work necessary for the diocese was too much for one man and made plans to split it along state lines.
Consequently, the Diocese of Hartford was reduced to the state of Connecticut. Rhode Island was deemed too small to be a diocese on its own, and so to the new Diocese of Providence was added the southern Massachusetts counties of Bristol, Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket, including the burgeoning cities of Fall River and New Bedford. Bishop McFarland thankfully retired to his See of Hartford, leaving Bishop Thomas Hendricken in charge of Providence.
In that same year, a group of parishioners formed the St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society of Warren, part of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America. Their mission was to educate and convince their neighbors about the ‘evils’ of alcohol through personal example. The membership was large enough to consider building their own meeting space, and in 1876, the Society met at their new hall on Croade Street across from the Fall River, Warren, and Providence Railroad tracks. The old “St. Mary’s Hall” still stands and is now a duplex.
For nineteen years, Father Michael McCallion, latterly assisted by his nephew, Reverend Charles Rogers, had travelled every Sunday between St. Mary’s in Warren and St. Mary’s in Bristol. On March 6, 1874, Bishop Hendricken detached the mission in Bristol from its mother church in Warren, and assigned Father Rogers as parish priest, a post he would hold until his death in 1884.
The growing number of French Canadians in the diocese led Bishop Hendricken to appoint Reverend E. E. Nobert as pastor for the French-Canadians in Warren in 1877. At that time, his residence was in Somerset, Massachusetts, and every Sunday he would travel by train between the two towns to celebrate Mass. The worshipers, known as the Society of St. Jean Baptiste, met in the hall on Croade Street belonging to the St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society, before building their own church on Main Street in 1882.
St. Jean Baptiste Church in 1890 (built in 1881)
Father Tucker’s original wooden church had served the Catholic faithful of Warren and surrounding areas for 30 years, with significant additions and alterations as the parish population grew. The early morning of November 16, 1881, put an end to that. As stated in the account in the Warren Gazette: “About ten minutes before two o’clock Wednesday morning, St. Mary’s (RC) church was discovered in flames by the residents of the vicinity, who immediately raised an alarm, but the fire had made such progress when seen that all efforts of the firemen failed to prevent the total destruction of the edifice.” The rectory and another house owned by the church were also burned, but the occupants got out in time, and with the help of neighbors, were able to retrieve many of their belongings. The church was totally destroyed; some of the altar vessels were saved, but nothing else.
Insurance on the church was not enough to cover the loss; however, a little over $10,000 was paid out by the end of the year, and the parishioners of St. Mary’s began the process of building a new church. For the next fifteen months, they gathered for Mass at St. Mary’s Hall on Croade Street, and when that proved too small a space for the congregation, at the Armory Hall on Jefferson Street.
The new church, a Late-Victorian Stick Style edifice designed by Providence architect William R. Walker, was completed in February, 1883. Masses were celebrated on Sunday, February 4th, opening a ten-day mission. By mid-March, the new Adams organ was installed. On November 25th of that year, the building was dedicated by Bishop Hendricken before an ecumenical gathering of town notables. It would continue to serve the parish until 1970, when it was destroyed to make way for a more imposing structure. The Rectory was replaced in 1886 by a house built in the Queen Anne style, with a wrap-around covered veranda and prominent gables.
St. Mary’s Church (finished 1883) in 1890
After 38 years as pastor of St. Mary’s, Father Michael McCallion died in August of 1892. He had guided his parish through the era of Know-Nothings with their anti-Catholic agenda; of the Civil War and its aftermath; of the bank failures and subsequent closing of factories and loss of employment of his parishioners; and of the constant political machinations in Rhode Island to keep the right to vote out of the hands of the immigrants. The Warren Gazette had only good to say of him throughout his tenure, and at his death wrote, “During the early years of his pastorate he did parochial work in all of the Rhode Island towns on the east side of the bay from East Providence to Newport. He was deeply devoted to his parish and took no vacation from his labors during the last 20 years of his life, and in the 38 years of his pastoral work in Warren he was absent from his church but two Sundays by reason of Illness… He was greatly beloved by his parish to which he was deeply devoted, and was universally esteemed by the entire community.”
Reverend Denis M. Lowney of the Cathedral (subsequently the second Auxiliary Bishop of Providence) and Reverend Patrick McGee of St. Stephen’s, Pawtucket, celebrated Mass in the two-week interim until a new pastor could be appointed.
At the end of August, Reverend James Fogarty (1922) was assigned to St. Mary’s. In his four years as pastor, his most notable achievement was the establishment, in 1894, of St. Mary’s Institute. Seeing many of the town’s young men wasting their time in billiard saloons and other unhealthy locales, he sought to provide them with a place for recreation, social gatherings, and literary pursuits. After purchasing the land just to the south of the Rectory on Main Street, he began erecting the two-story building, which was dedicated by Bishop Matthew Harkins in November.
The 40’ x 80’ edifice contained a bowling alley, pool tables, and athletic equipment in the basement; a hall on the second floor for plays, dances, and fairs; and four smaller rooms on the first floor for literary and social gatherings. The lawn surrounding the building was the site of picnics and clambakes. The Warren Gazette wrote: “The building, in its inception and successful completion, reflects credit on the parish and the rector, by whose persistent efforts it was so successfully accomplished. The plan contemplated the opening of the rooms at all seasonable hours in order to give the young people of the town an opportunity to obtain recreation and exercise of a beneficial character and its work cannot fail to accomplish much good to the rising generation.”
As church socials, fairs, and festivals could not raise all of the money needed for this project, Fr. Fogarty mortgaged St. Mary’s Church, Rectory, and Institute with the land on which they stood for $10,000, fully expecting to pay it off within the year. This proved to be untenable, in part because of the sudden unemployment and subsequent relocation of 700 of his parishioners due to the fire which destroyed the Warren Manufacturing plant in 1895. It would be 12 years before the debt was reduced to $8,500, several more before it was eradicated altogether.
Father Fogarty was transferred to St. Louis’ Church, Fall River at the end of 1896, and Reverend John D. O’Keefe (1917) of St. Peter’s Church in Sandwich was assigned to St. Mary’s. In 1898, Father O’Keefe baptized the newborn son of Thomas and Katherine McVinney, giving him the name Russell. Fifty years later, Russell J. McVinney would be consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Providence.
St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society, 1877. St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society Hall (built 1876), also known as Temperance Hall and St. Mary’s Hall.
Despite his chronic ill-health (which would cause him to resign his pastorship of St. Mary’s in 1904), Father O’Keefe shared Bishop Harkins’ concern for the moral and social needs of the parishioners in his care. Temperance (which might mean moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages, but usually meant complete abstinence from the same) was increasingly touted as a much-needed reform. Catholic temperance societies had existed from the 1840’s; the St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society had done much good work in that cause, but through financial hardship and declining membership had ceased to exist in the late 1880s. Under Fr. O’Keefe’s guidance, a temperance society was formed by the young men of the parish in 1899. One of the first orders of business was to appoint an “amusement” committee to provide social and literary entertainments, always with the cause of Temperance in mind. The social side did not stop at lectures, dinners, and dramatic performances; the Temperance Society also formed both a successful bowling team and a baseball team, and issued challenges to all comers. Another group, the ‘Catholic Club’, had been organized in 1895 for “instructive” social events, and set up debates and lectures on topics of interest to the community.
Father O’Keefe transferred to St Mary’s Church in Providence in 1904 and was followed for a short time by Reverend Austin Dowling (1930), an intelligent and erudite historian who used the past to find solutions for the present. In 1905, Father Dowling became Rector of the Cathedral, and in 1912 was sent west to become Bishop of Des Moines; in 1919, he was appointed Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
The Reverend Edward J. Colgan (1952) succeeded Father Dowling as pastor and remained in this position for almost 20 years until his transfer in July of 1925. He continued the work of his predecessors in making needed repairs and upgrades to the church buildings, while trying to reduce the debt that those repairs entailed. During his tenure, his parishioners waited anxiously as sons and husbands fought in the trenches of the First World War. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic which followed saw the deaths of at least 50 citizens of Warren from October through February, five of whom were members of St. Mary’s.
It was also a time of unprecedented immigration, especially from the countries of Italy, Poland, and Russia. The Catholic immigrants in Warren and Barrington had been using the facilities of St. Mary’s, often with the services of their own cultural priests. In the second decade of the century, Bishop Harkins created three national churches in the area to serve the needs of these ethnic groups. St. Casimir’s parish (Polish-Lithuanian) was formed in Warren in 1908; their church was built on Child Street in 1909. In Barrington, Holy Angels Church (Italian) was erected in 1913; in 1915, it established a mission church in Warren for the Italian faithful in that town, which later incorporated as St. Alexander’s Church.
Father Colgan was followed in 1925 by Reverend James A. Fitz Simon, STL (1977), formerly assistant priest of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Woonsocket, who pastored St. Mary’s through the Great Depression and World War II. Before he transferred to St. Augustin’s Church in Newport, Father Fitz Simon directed the renovation of the interior of the church, refinishing the pews and improving the sanctuary. Oil heating was installed and the basement remodeled to serve as the Parish Hall. This energetic man also put a new roof on the church, paid off the decades-old church debt, and started a fund for a parish school, hoping to eventually remodel St. Mary’s Institute into classrooms.
The Right Reverend Monsignor Daniel E. Regan (1965) of St. Joseph’s, Cumberland, was assigned to St. Mary’s after Father Fitz Simon for a short period before being transferred in 1946, and Reverend George E. Archambault (1976) became Pastor. Father Archambault also envisioned the establishment of a parochial school, and to that end directed the purchase of a house directly across Main Street from the church for use as a convent for the teaching nuns.
The first meeting of the Knights of Columbus to plan the establishment of Columbus Credit Union was held in the basement of St. Mary’s Institute on October 16, 1950. For a few months, until they could move to the second floor of a building on Main Street, “…all transactions were handled Friday nights from 7 to 9 in the basement… The office was in a hat, you might say.” The original credit union was purchased by Navigant Credit Union in 2012, and still operates out of that same building on Main Street.
On October 7, 1951, St. Mary’s observed the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding with a town-wide celebration and centennial banquet.
Warren residents of Portuguese descent had been worshipping at St. Mary’s from its inception, and by 1947 were said to comprise a considerable part of the congregation. In 1952, Bishop Russell McVinney established the parish of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Warren to accommodate the growing Portuguese and Açorean population.
In 1954, Father Archambault was transferred to Assumption parish in Providence, and was succeeded for a short time by Reverend Edward J. Tiernan (1966). He was followed in 1957 by Reverend Joseph J. Lamb (1971), a Lieutenant Commander and chaplain in the Navy. A former department chaplain of the American Legion of Rhode Island and the director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese, Fr. Lamb was an outspoken opponent of politics for politics’ sake, and of those who tried to undermine our elected form of government in favor of dictatorships. As the Diocesan Resettlement Director, he was appointed to the Governor’s Committee on the Refugee Relief Program in 1955, and in the same year chaired the Governor’s Conference on Children and Youth.
The deteriorating St. Mary’s Institute was razed in 1959; the cornerstone with the date “1894” was salvaged and can be seen in front of the current church building where the Institute had stood. The church basement being too small, Fr. Lamb obtained permission from the Bristol School Board to hold religious instruction classes at Rockwell School in the afternoon twice a week.
Fr. Lamb attended the 1964 State Conference on Religion and Race which examined racial justice and discrimination in Rhode Island. Later that year he was transferred to the Church of Saint Leo in Pawtucket and was succeeded by Reverend David J. Coffey (1988), V.F., Dean of Bristol County and Diocesan Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
Although Father Archambault had secured the services of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the parochial school he worked to establish never materialized. In 1966, Father Coffey appointed Sister Mary Joeline Teixeira RSM to serve as the parish CCD Coordinator.
In June 1967, Bishop McVinney approved plans for construction of a larger church which would house not only the Parish School of Religion but the increased number of Catholics so confidently expected by the Second Vatican Council. The design, by local architect William O’Rourke, was of a large, squarish brick-and-concrete building with a low hip roof and a projecting vestibule, topped by an immense aluminum spire and cross. The basement, which was meant to hold the Parish School, had a large auditorium and stage, a compact kitchen, and eight classrooms. Ground was broken on August 19th of that year; construction would continue for the next three years. To help pay for the new church, the Bishop approved moving the parish boundaries south about a mile past the town border with Bristol.
With the completion of the new church, the old church building was razed and the Rectory was moved to its current location on Luther Street. Father Coffey wanted to honor the original name of the church and the wishes of its first pastor, and so on July 19, 1970, the building was consecrated and dedicated again under the name of CHURCH OF SAINT MARY OF THE BAY, to the honor and glory of God under the patronage of His Most Holy Mother.
The enormous cross is placed atop the new church, 1970
Unfortunately, the parochial school envisioned by Father Coffey never got out of the planning stage. The classrooms were used for the parish’s religious education program on Sundays. The auditorium was the site of parish social activities, with Bingo on Sunday nights and festivals and bazaars during the year.
Upon the death of Father Coffey in 1988, Reverend Bertrand L. Theroux (known as Father Bert) became pastor of St. Mary of the Bay. During his pastorate, an on-going leakage problem in the roof necessitated the removal of the gigantic church steeple to prevent further damage. In 1989, the convent on Main Street was closed and sold; a smaller house was built on church property near Water Street for the Sister of Mercy in residence.
At this same time, Father Theroux and the parishioners of St. Mary of the Bay formulated plans to renovate and modernize the Church sanctuary. This extensive interior renovation was completed and a dedication ceremony was held in 1998. In December 1999, Father Theroux assumed responsibility for St. Jean Baptiste Parish as Administrator Pro Tem.
Pope St. John Paul II designated 2000 as a Jubilee Year. Called “the Great Jubilee”, it was meant to be a healing time of reconciliation and conversion to the church, and a year of exuberant celebration and spiritual renewal. St. Mary of the Bay was appointed by Bishop Robert Mulvee as a Jubilee church for the East Bay, one of nine in the diocese, where the faithful could receive special graces attached to the year, most particularly the Jubilee Indulgence.
Fr. Theroux transferred to St. Francis de Sales in July of 2000, and was followed by Rev. Peter J. Gower (transferred to OL of Grace, Johnston in 2013). Rev. W. Douglas Grant, who succeeded him, was appointed to St. Mark, Jamestown in 2020.
Our parish is now admirably and capably served by Rev. Joseph R. Upton, assisted by Rev. Mr. John Pryor. Together with our Pastor and Deacon, our thriving community enthusiastically looks forward to celebrating 175 years as a parish in 2026.