The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese as “that portion of God’s people which is entrusted to a bishop to be shepherded by him with the cooperation of the presbyterium (the priests of the diocese.) Adhering thus to its pastor and gathered together through the gospel and the Eucharist this portion constitutes a particular Church in which the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and cooperative.” (Christus Dominus)
In 1904 Pope Pius X set apart as a distinct portion of God’s people the parishes of Southeastern Massachusetts and gave them a bishop who would have his Cathedral in the City of Fall River. This, of course. was not the beginning of the Catholic Church in this area. Since 1872 the territory of the new Diocese of Fall River had been a part of the Diocese of Providence and previous to that part of the Diocese of Boston.
Although Catholics may have come briefly in to the area during the days of colonial exploration, it was not until the early nineteenth century that Catholic history really began. The first documented evidence of Catholic life in what is now the Diocese of Fall River is the record of the transfer of a parcel of land at Allen and Dartmouth Streets in New Bedford on March 19, 1821 to John Cheverus, first Bishop of Boston. Here Father Philip Lariscy, an Irish Augustinian, was able to build a small frame Church with the aid of a band of Irish parishioners and Portuguese seamen. This church was one of only six Catholic Churches in New England and it has given to St. Lawrence Parish in New Bedford the singular distinction of tracing its origin to Bishop Cheverus.
Soon other Catholic communities began to spring up. At Sandwich on Cape Cod, St. Peter’s Church was dedicated in 1830 to serve the Catholics who had come to work at the famous glass works in Taunton. An enterprising group of Catholics settled after the opening of the Taunton Print Works. Due to their efforts the first St. Mary’s Church was dedicated in 1832. Fall River received its first Catholic family in 1822 with the arrival of Patrick and Helen Kennedy and their five children. In their home Father Robert Woodley, who traveled throughout the area, offered Mass for the first time in 1828 but it was not until 1837 that the small wooden church of St. John the Baptist was erected on the site of the present St. Mary’s Cathedral. In North Easton the Ames family gave land for a small chapel in 1850 and in 1859 St. Mary’s in North Attleboro was dedicated, the first church in that area.
From these early centers priests tended to Catholics in neighboring and even distant towns such as Dartmouth, Somerset, Norton, Attleboro, Mansfield, Wareham, Harwich, Provincetown, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
After the Civil War, immigration to the area increased substantially. In 1869 a Portuguese priest was sent to New Bedford to care for the congregation that would become the parish of St. John the Baptist, the first in the United States founded for Portuguese Catholics. In the same year St. Anne’s Parish in Fall River was established for French Canadians. In future decades parishes would be formed for Polish, Italian, German, Cape Verdean and Lebanese Catholics so that Bishop William O. Brady could accurately say in his sermon on the occasion of the Diocesan Golden Jubilee that “the people of God in the Diocese of Fall River make up a Pentecostal list.”
There were, however, only nine parishes in this portion of Massachusetts when it became part of the newly created Diocese of Providence in 1872, but by 1904 when the Diocese of Fall River was established there were forty-four parishes serving 130,000 Catholics. The new diocese received an outstanding priest as its first bishop. The Most Reverend William Stang was born in Germany, taught at the University of Louvain in Belgium and had served with distinction in parishes, in the curia, and on the mission band of the Diocese of Providence. Bishop Stang was recognized as a man of learning and holiness. During the episcopate, which was cut short by his untimely death in 1907, he established parishes, zealously implemented the directives of the pope on catechetical instruction, and encouraged the founding of St. Anne’s Hospital.
Bishop Stang was succeeded by the Most Reverend Daniel F. Feehan, a priest of the Springfield Diocese who was pastor of St. Bernard’s Parish in Fitchburg at the time of his nomination as bishop. During the twenty-seven years as ordinary, Bishop Feehan established thirty-six parishes and was especially devoted to children, giving much attention to the child care institutions of the diocese.
When Bishop Feehan died in 1934, he was succeeded by the Most Reverend James E. Cassidy, his Coadjutor Bishop and Vicar General for many years. Bishop Cassidy is remembered as a stern supporter of temperance and a staunch advocate of the rights of working men. He was concerned for the needs of the elderly and founded homes for the aged, which became model institutions of their kind. In 1945 Bishop Cassidy received the assistance of a Coadjutor Bishop, the Most Reverend James L. Connolly, a Fall River priest who had served for many years as a professor and then rector of the Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Paul.
Bishop Connolly encouraged vocations to the diocesan priesthood and was devoted to the sick, especially the incurably ill, and to exceptional children. He founded four regional high schools and the diocesan newspaper, The Anchor. In 1959 the Most Reverend James J. Gerrard was appointed Auxiliary Bishop. Bishop Connolly attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. In 1966 the diocesan chancellor, Monsignor Humberto S. Medeiros, was ordained Bishop of Brownsville, Texas. Bishop Medeiros became Archbishop of Boston in 1970 and three years later he was named a Cardinal. When he died in 1983 he was buried, at his request, beside his parents in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Fall River.
The Most Reverend Daniel A. Cronin became the fifth Bishop of Fall River in December 1970 upon the retirement of Bishop Connolly. Bishop Cronin had previously served the Holy See in Ethiopia and at the Vatican Secretariat of State before returning to Boston as Auxiliary Bishop in 1968. Bishop Cronin faithfully and carefully carried on the work of implementing the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. He supported liturgical renewal, continuing education of the clergy and the restoration of the permanent diaconate. In addition he devoted himself to the pastoral care of the sick in hospitals, to the expansion of Catholic Counseling and Social Services, to the Family Life Ministry and Pro-life activities. Late in 1991 Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop Cronin Archbishop of Hartford.
On August 11, 1992 the Most Reverend Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands was installed sixth Bishop of Fall River. The new bishop had to deal immediately with a serious case of clerical sexual abuse. This he did forthrightly, showing great compassion and pastoral sensitivity. Bishop O’Malley, a zealous advocate of Catholic education, has opened three new schools and strengthened the St. Mary’s Education Fund for students in need of financial assistance to attend diocesan schools. He has also established an office for AIDS Ministry and dedicated himself to the needs of immigrant communities, expanded social services, including the establishment of two residences for women, fostered vocations to the priesthood and reorganized the diocesan curia, or administration. He has also begun an annual celebration of the “Red Mass” for members of the justice profession and a yearly Mass and program of affirmation for those working in health care fields.
The Diocese of Fall River is presently under the pastoral care and guidance of the current Bishop of Fall River, Bishop George W. Coleman. The Most Reverend George W. Coleman was born in Fall River on February 1, 1939, the son of the late George W. and Beatrice K. (Shea) Coleman. He and his sister, Eileen, were raised in Somerset, where he and his family were members of St. Patrick’s Parish. He attended the town’s Village Elementary School and from there went on to the former Msgr. James Coyle High School in Taunton, from which he graduated in 1957, and then to Holy Cross College in Worcester. He prepared for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton and at the North American College in Rome, where he also earned a graduate degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University.
Bishop Coleman was ordained a priest for the Fall River Diocese in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on December 16, 1964. His first assignment was as curate or associate pastor at St. Kilian’s Parish, New Bedford, where he served from 1965 to 1967. He was then assigned to minister in the same capacity at the former St. Louis Parish, Fall River, until 1972, and from there to Our Lady of Victory Parish, Centerville, until 1977. He was then appointed to direct the Diocesan Department of Education, a post he held for 8 years, overseeing Catholic schools, parish religious education and campus ministry programs in the diocese. In 1982 he also became pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Fall River. He left both posts in 1985 to become pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Sandwich, where he served until 1994. From 1990 to 1994 he was dean of the Cape and Islands Deanery.
In August of 1994 former Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., reorganized the administration of the Fall River Diocese and appointed then Father Coleman to the position of Vicar General and first Moderator of the Curia. (Curia is a collective term for the institutions, offices and individuals who assist a bishop in the pastoral and administrative governance of the diocese.) Later that same year he was named by Pope John Paul II to the rank of Prelate of Honor with the title of Reverend Monsignor. He was elected to serve as Administrator of the diocese by his peers on the College of Consultors following the transfer of Bishop O’Malley to the Diocese of Palm Beach in Florida in October 2002. Six months later, on April 30, 2003, Bishop Coleman was appointed by Pope John Paul II to become the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Fall River. He is the second native son of the diocese to serve as its leader in its 100-year history.
Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha, S.D.V., currently an Auxiliary Bishop of the Newark, N.J. Archdiocese, to become the eighth bishop of the Fall River Diocese. He succeeds Bishop George W. Coleman who, in accordance with Church Law, submitted his letter of resignation upon turning 75 years of age on Feb. 1, 2014.
Bishop da Cunha, 60, was installed as eighth Bishop of Fall River on September 24, 2014 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River. Click here to listen to the Homily which Bishop da Cunha delivered at his installation.
In his ministry in the Fall River Diocese, Bishop da Cunha will shepherd a community of faith of approximately 302,484 persons who worship in 84 parishes and 11 mission churches in Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands.
Bishop da Cunha was born in Nova Fatima, Bahia, Brazil, on Aug. 21, 1953, the son of Manoel and Josefa Moreira.
He attended local schools in Nova Fatima, Bahia, including the minor seminary (or Vocationary) of the Vocationist Fathers in Riachão do Jacuípe. There he joined the Vocationist Fathers, also known as the Society of Divine Vocations. He studied Philosophy at Universidade Catolica do Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, and Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, New Jersey, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree.
Bishop da Cunha was ordained to the priesthood for the Society of Divine Vocations, in the Church of St. Michael, Newark, by Bishop Joseph A. Francis, S.D.V., Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, on Mar. 27, 1982. Following his ordination he served as a parochial vicar of St. Michael Church, Newark, and as director of vocations for his Congregation. In 1983, when the Archdiocese entrusted St. Nicholas Parish, Palisades Park, to the Vocationist Fathers, Bishop da Cunha was transferred there to serve as parochial vicar and vice superior of the local community and at the same time continued his ministry of promoting vocations.
During his time as vocation director he was very active and served on the board of the Eastern Religious Vocations Directors Association. In 1987 he was appointed pastor of St. Nicholas Parish. In 1992 he was elected secretary of the Council of the Vocationist Delegation in the United States.
From 1994 until 2000, Bishop da Cunha served as novice master and director of the Vocationary, the house of formation that the Society maintains in Florham Park, N.J.
His appointment as Auxiliary Bishop of Newark and Titular Bishop of Ucres was announced by the Holy See on June 27, 2003, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He was ordained a Bishop on September 3, 2003, at the Sacred Heart Cathedral Basilica and was appointed Regional Bishop for Essex County on October 15, 2003 and then Vicar for Evangelization on May 4, 2005. He was named Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Newark on June 6, 2013 and as such has since served as the principal deputy of the archbishop in the administration of the archdiocese.