Parish History


History of St. Barnabas
St. Barnabas Parish
August 28, 1963 – December 19, 1965

St. Barnabas Parish, established in the division of St. Anthony’s Parish, comprising the southern part of Portsmouth, RI, from Sakonnet River along Prospect St., Hedley St., and Cory’s Lane to Narragansett Bay, southward to the Middletown town line, was canonically established by the Most Reverend Bishop Russell J. McVinney, DD, Bishop of Providence, On August 28, 1963, with the Reverend Patrick J. Hunt as its first Pastor.

First Mass was celebrated at the Portsmouth Roller Rink , courtesy of the owner, Mr. Charles Davis, on September 8, 1963.

A Holy Name Society, with Joseph Chaves as first president, and a St. Barnabas Women’s Guild, with Catherine Sheehan, first president, were established September 1963. Religious instructions commenced in October 1963 at St. Anthony’s School and Coggeshall School. Trustees of the parish appointed – they being Thomas Levesque and James Miranda.

A committee of Holy Name men formed to transform the barn in the rear of the church property, 1697 East Main Rd., Portsmouth, (the old Reise farm) into a chapel to be used for daily mass, Baptisms, confessions and other church services. This chapel was completed February of 1964.

Masses on holy days were celebrated at Mother of Hope Novitiate, West Main Rd., Portsmouth.

In the planning for the new church, the architectural firm of Kurtz, Denning and Gazda was engaged with Mr. Denning the architectural planner.

The contract was let March 27, 1965 to the low bidder, C & B Construction Company of Newport, Rhode Island.

The first sod was turned over in April 1965 by Father Hunt with parishioners, including Manuel D. Medeiros – one of the oldest members of the parish participating. Construction started mid-April 1965 and upper portion of the church building completed December 18, 1965.

The blessing of the church and the dedication of the altars took place December 19, 1965, with Bishop McVinney officiating and saying the first Mass.


Diocese of Providence

The Chancery Office
34 Fenner Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02903

THIS IS TO CERTIFY that on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the 19th day of December 1965, at 11:00 A.M., His Excellency, the Most Reverend Russell J. McVinney, D.D., Bishop of Providence, blessed the cornerstone and the new parish church of St. Barnabas, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, observing the ceremonies of the Roman Ritual in the presence of Right Reverend Monsignor John L. Drury, Vicar General of the Diocese of Providence, Reverend Patrick J. Hunt, first pastor of St. Barnabas Parish, Right Reverend Monsignor Edward P. Boland, Dean of the Newport Deanery, various members of the clergy and a large repre-sentative group of the lay members of the parish and civil officials.

Then His Excellency consecrated the altar of sacrifice and the altar of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament of the church as portable altars in honor of St. Barnabas enclosing in them the authentic relics of St. Maurice, St. Vitalis, and St. Anastasia, martyrs, adding the prescribed three grains of incense. Finally, His Excellency celebrated a Low Pontifical Mass. Very Reverend Monsignor Michael W. Dziob and Reverend Daniel M. O’Grady acted as chaplains and masters of ceremonies to His Excellency, and the Right Reverend Monsignor John J. Tully, introduced by the pastor, delivered the sermon on this solemn occasion. The ceremony was concluded by the blessing and the congratulatory remarks of His Excellency.

Given at Providence, Rhode Island, December 19, 1965.By order of the Most Reverend Bishop:
(Msgr.) Wiliam Varsanyi
Vice Chancellor

Sermon on the Occasion of Dedication
St. Barnabas Church, Portsmouth, RI

December 19, 1965

The Island of Aquidneck, already glorious in the civil and religious history of our State, today is adding another illustrious chapter to its annals.
In 1638, William Coddington and Doctor John Clarke came here seeking religious freedom from the tyranny of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and they exercised powerful influences on the development of the Island of Rhode Island.
The History of this Island is also intimately associated with the early beginnings of Catholicism in Rhode Island. It might be said to have begun on that Spring morning in 1524 – when Giovanni Verrazanno cast anchor in Narragansett Bay. However, he effected no settlement; and we have no conclusive evidence of Catholics in these environs up to the time of the landing of the French soldiers under Rochambeau in 1780.

Father James Fitton, that singularly eminent pioneer priest, in his “Sketches of the Catholic Church in New England,” writes of the south room in the old State House, as a place where an Altar was erected, Mass celebrated, and the Blessed Sacrament reserved; no doubt for the French soldiers. During the French occupation, some Catholic Indian Chiefs came to honor the representative of the French King and to seize the opportunity for Mass and Confession. In their honor, a field Mass was celebrated with the Massed troops present.

The next trace of Catholics on Aquidneck was at Newport, in 1793, when French residents of San Domingo and Guadeloupe came seeking asylum from the revolutionary struggles in the French West Indies.

Father Thayer, a convert priest from Boston, visited Newport in 1791 and in 1798, according to the records of the Boston Chancery Office. The first record of a Baptism in Newport in the Baptismal Register of the Holy Cross Cathedral of Boston reads – Joseph Deane (colored) on February 6, 1791, by Father Thayer. The records of the Boston Chancery also show visits made to this territory by Father Tisserant, and Father Matignon (former Professor in the Sorbonne who fled the Revolution), and by Father John Cheverus, New England’s First Bishop, and Archbishop John Carroll.
The late Archbishop, Austin Dowling, in “History of the Diocese of Providence,” tells us that during the period 1791 – 1809 – the flood of Irish immigration began to be manifested in our State, and that it flowed over to the Island of Aquidneck. 

Previously, the Catholic Colony was principally émigrés from the West Indies; now, there were large groups of Irish laborers working on the construction of Fort Adams and in the coal mines of Portsmouth. In 1810 and 1811, Father Matignon was in Portsmouth, and in 1813, Bishop Cheverus was here. Archbishop Dowling further tells us of the next evidence of a priest on Aquidneck Island, namely Father Patrick Byrne, who came from Boston; besides giving the Sacraments to one hundred and fifty laborers working at Fort Adams, he reported hearing confessions of twenty or thirty working in the “coal pits of Portsmouth.”

Then in 1828, along came Father Robert Woodley, a young southern priest sent by Bishop Fenwick, to be Pastor over what is now the whole Diocese of Providence and Fall River. He visited this territory monthly, to care for the Catholic population. The first land and the first building called a Catholic Church in Rhode Island was bought by him on April 8, 1828; later that year (in August), he acquired property in Pawtucket.
There followed subsequently a succession of distinguished pioneer priests – Fathers Corry, Lee, O’Reilly, and finally in 1844, there was the great Father James Fitton, whose name is emblazoned with letters of Glory on the Banner of the Church of New England. He was the first Pastor of St. Mary’s of Newport. He bought the land with the help of a large donation from Mrs. Goodly Harper, daughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Among other great deeds he started Holy Cross College, then gave it to Bishop Fenwick who in turn gave it to the Jesuits. He had already a distinguished career as a master builder following the Catholic population along the construction of the railroads from Providence to Worcester. He succeeded in building the present church.

After Father Fitton came Father William O’Reilly, brother of the Bishop of the time, then the beloved Father Philip Grace, call the “Doctor.” Father Grace served as Pastor of St. Mary’s twenty nine years. Earlier Portsmouth and later Jamestown were missions of St. Mary’s, Newport, during the time of these devoted priests. Portsmouth was referred to in those days as the “coal mines.” These were worked at various intervals in the last century, and when they were closed, only a few farmers formed the congregation. A Chapel was built here in 1882 under Father Philip Grace of St. Mary’s; Mass was said usually once a month, and regularly in the summer months.
In 1885, Bishop Hendricken divided St. Mary’s and formed St. Joseph’s, whose territory included Portsmouth. Reverend James Coyle was the first Pastor and his name still endures with beloved memory. Then followed Father Louis Deady – one of whose assistants Father James H. Smith, a Portsmouth boy, and one of the early Diocesan Vocations from this section.

Father James Rahan succeeded Father Deady as Pastor until 1912. In 1908, another division was made and the Holy Ghost Fathers were charged by Bishop Harkins with the upper part of the Island of Aquidneck, Tiverton and Little Compton. Until this time, the priests from Newport, (St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s) attended the mission at Portsmouth.

Reverend Christopher J. Rooney was appointed as first Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Portsmouth in May, 1908. As there was no rectory, the key of the Church was kept at the home of William j. Dunn, Jr., who welcomed Father Rooney to his home. 1909, Father Rooney bought a house for the Rectory, and other Holy Ghost Fathers were sent to help him. Among them was Father Manuel J. Barros, who came to care for the Portuguese, now a considerable number in this section.
Succeeding Pastors of St. Anthony’s were Father Cornelius J. O’Rourke, until 1926, then Father Louis J. Ward, followed by the Reverend Bartholomw J. Buckley, the present Pastor of St. Anthony’s since 1935.

The Holy Ghost Fathers deserve tremendous credit for their labors, no only at Portsmouth, but on the neighboring parts of the mainland from Tiverton to Sakonnet. They zealously ministered to the Catholic population, developing a strong, zealous and loyal Catholic faith.

Then with World War II came the spread of Naval installations from Newport, followed by the expansion of the population into suburbia along with the advent of new industry. Bishop McVinney, in his ever vigilant solicitude for the needs of the faithful, decided it was in their best spiritual interest to form another parish; thus, on August 27th, 1963, the parish of St. Barnabas the Apostle was created, with our dear friend, Reverend Patrick J. Hunt as the first Pastor.

Today then, we find the history of the Catholic Church in Portsmouth entering a new era of history, which, with a Catholic population of such a splendid type, and manifest faith, augers well to make a record of achievement perhaps greater than its distant past.

So much for the History of the Faith in these parts. Fortunately for me, while I was assistant at St. Mary’s, Newport, I was close to the sources that enabled me to learn and to love the glorious heritage of the Catholic Church on the Island of Rhode Island. However, we cannot let this significant occasion pass without some reference to the beloved Apostle of the early Church, who is your Patron.

St. Barnabas and his life can constitute a series of sermons which are best left for your distinguished Pastor to give on other occasions. It suffices today to recall some salient factors in his life. Barnabas was ranked as an Apostle, like St. Paul, by the early Church. He was born of Jewish parents on the Island of Cyprus at the beginning of the Christian era. He spent much time in Jerusalem, even before the crucifixion, and appears to have settled there where his relatives, the family of Mark the Evangelist, also had their homes. The Acts (IV 36-37) favors the opinion he was converted to Christianity shortly after Pentecost twenty nine or thirty A.D.

He sold his property and donated the proceeds to the Church. The Apostles, because of his success as a preacher, surnamed him Barnabas (Son of Exhortation) originally it was Joseph. When Saul, the Persecutor, turned Paul the Apostle, made his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, the Apostles were slow to accept him and to believe in the reality of his conversion. Barnabas, who apparently held a high position among them stood sponsor for him. After this, Paul went back to Tarsus and lived in obscurity for some five or six years.

Reports came to the Apostles of the great success by some of the Disciples, obscure men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who were preaching Christ to the Gentiles; thus inaugurating the real mission of the Christian Church. They met with great results at Antioch in Syria; and Barnabas was sent by them to investigate the works of his countrymen. Barnabas saw in the conversions effected, the work of God’s Grace, and heartily welcomed the first Gentile converts. He realized at once the vast possibilities of this wide field, and, immediately set out for distant Tarsus, to find St. Paul, whom he persuaded to come to Antioch and to begin the work of preaching to the Gentiles. Barnabas was deeply impressed by Paul, and it was no mere accident that led both to the Gentile mission. They labored together for a whole year at Antioch and a short while later, the Church of Antioch inspired by the Holy Ghost, designated them as Missionaries of the Gentile world.

The first missionary efforts were jointly shared by Barnabas and Paul, with Barnabas as Director. Later, Paul gradually assumed charge. After the first mission of St. Paul and Barnabas, we find Barnabas joined by Mark going on missions of their own. We have not the time nor is this the proper occasion for treatment of the extensive missionary activity of these great Apostles.

Finally, it may be said that Barnabas, with the exception of St. Paul and St. Peter, and certain of the twelve – appears to be the most esteemed man of the First Christian generation. St. Luke speaks of him with affection “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of Faith.”

Barnabas’ title to glory comes not only from his kindness of heart, his sanctity and missionary labors, but from his readiness to lay aside his Jewish prejudices, before certain of the other Apostles and welcome the Gentiles to the Faith. The Christian world is indebted to him for his early perception of St. Paul’s worth and for giving to the Gentiles their great Apostle: in fact, he gave us the greatest teacher of Christianity after Christ. May I add – that it is entirely appropriate that the Pastor of the Distinguished Parish of St. Paul’s, Cranston, should be privileged today to pay tribute to Paul’s beloved Barnabas.

This dedication we are witnessing, marks one of the turning points in the Church of Portsmouth; to the long litany of illustrious priests who once labored here is now added that of Father Patrick J. Hunt. The people of St. Barnabas Parish are indeed fortunate to have as Pastor one whom we have known for many years as an intimate friend; in fact, our Fathers before us were dear friends.

Father Hunt is an outstanding priest, a man, and a leader; under his loving guidance, and with his sterling qualities of mind and heart, the people of St. Barnabas Parish will add new luster to the already distinguished history of Aquidneck Island.

The people of this parish merit our sincere complements, on the remarkable progress made in a short time. The results here speak of their sacrifices for the faith. Our congratulations also to the distinguished young architect who designed this beautiful, modern Church; to the Contractor, and to all who contributed to its erection.

We conclude with this prayer – that St. Barnabas, your Patron, from his throne in Heaven, may ever intercede for this parish, the first dedicated in his honor in our Diocese! Through his intercession, may God Bless your beginnings, strengthen your efforts, and perfect your purpose, so that during the challenging years ahead, this Parish of St. Barnabas may resplendently serve to render glory to God, and to bring salvation to the souls of men.

John J. Tully
December 13, 1965
Pastor, St. Paul’s, Cranston, RI