September 07, 2016

The Establishment and Naming of Providence College

Architect's drawing
Architect’s drawing
Bishop Matthew Harkins
Bishop Matthew Harkins

While he awaited formal papal approval for the College, Right Rev. Matthew D. Harkins, D.D., bishop of the Diocese of Providence, took steps to secure the necessary legal approval in Rhode Island. On Jan. 18, 1917, Providence State Rep. John I. Devlin introduced a bill of petition in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The Evening Bulletin, the afternoon daily newspaper of the day, reported on the bill’s introduction, and The Providence Journal (the Bulletin’s morning counterpart) published the full text of the proposed charter the following day.

A revised bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously on Feb. 2, and the state Senate followed with its approval on Feb. 6. Gov. R. Livingston Beeckman (an Episcopalian) signed the bill into law on Feb. 14, 1917, making Providence College an official corporation in the eyes of the State of Rhode Island with a charter granted by the state.

Dominican Provincial Rev. James R. Meagher, O.P. had originally suggested the new college be called Matthew Harkins College after Bishop Harkins, whose idea it was to ask the Dominican Order to found the College. But the bishop objected out of modesty. Father Meagher then suggested the name Guzman College, as Guzman was the family name of St. Dominic, something the provincial deemed most appropriate given that 1917 was the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Dominican Order. However, Matthew Sullivan, an architect hired by Bishop Harkins to design the College’s initial building, suggested the name “Providence College” during a meeting with Father Meagher.

Rev. James Meagher, O.P.
Rev. James Meagher, O.P.

Father Meagher liked the name immediately. He felt it had great appeal because it located the College in its own city and diocese and also was sufficiently religious for a Catholic institution. The decision was left to Bishop Harkins, and he endorsed “Providence College” as the name for the college.

The first meeting of the Providence College Corporation took place on March 10, 1917, at the bishop’s house on Fenner Street in Providence, next to the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul. The Corporation’s by-laws were approved, and its first officers were elected. The first Corporation president was Right Rev. Msgr. Peter E. Blessing, a former vicar general of the diocese and a former rector of SS. Peter & Paul Cathedral. A committee was authorized to proceed with construction of the College’s initial building, to be called Harkins Hall, with the bishop having relented a bit from his earlier modest stance. The initial land grant was given, and Bishop Harkins presented the Corporation with a deed for approximately 17 acres of land which had been part of the Judge Charles Smith Bradley estate acquired by the Diocese of Providence in 1911, as well as some contiguous land acquired in 1913.

The Corporation authorized the hiring of Matthew Sullivan as the architect for the building of Harkins Hall and issued a contract for its construction not to exceed $175,000. Bishop Harkins began a fundraising drive for the building the very next day, with a goal of $200,000. He did so while celebrating the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Raymond’s Church in recognition of the 700th anniversary of the Order of Preachers. The first response to the bishop came from Dominican Provincial Father Meagher, who pledged $25,000. The initial efforts of the campaign were successful and, by May 23, 1918, the College building fund stood at $217,588.

The Corporation met again on July 22, 1918, and voted to open the College in late September of that year. Rev. Dennis A. Casey, O.P. was chosen as the College’s first president. Father Casey had served as president of Aquinas College in Columbus, Ohio, prior to coming to Providence in 1916. He was, in the words of Father Meagher, “a builder and not a scholar.” Father Casey served as president of Providence College and also as pastor of St. Pius V Parish. He also taught Latin in the College’s first year.

Much of the material used in this story was drawn from “The Origins and Early History of Providence College Through 1947,” the dissertation of the late Dr. Donna T. McCaffrey ’73G, ’83 Ph.D., and ’87G, former PC associate professor of history, which was published in 1985.

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