On Jan. 1, 1865, Father Daniel Hearne wrote to then Father John J. Williams of Boston, resigning as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Taunton.
The roots of the Taunton parish can be traced to January 1828, when Bishop Benedict Fenwick, whose diocese consisted of the six New England States, tasked Father Robert D. Woodley with travelling through Rhode Island to assess the need for a Catholic Church there and the local community's willingness to support one.
Father Woodley returned to Boston after three weeks and reported that the local Catholic population was small but eager to have a church of their own, prompting the bishop to appoint him administrator of a new mission consisting of Rhode Island and contiguous parts of Massachusetts.
Returning to the area, it is believed Father Woodley celebrated the first Mass in Taunton on Feb. 10, 1828, at a schoolhouse rented by the local Catholics. He would continue to return once every two months until being replaced by Father John Corry in 1830, whose tenure saw the construction of the first Catholic church in Taunton. He purchased land for that purpose on June 24, 1831, and, on Oct. 28, Bishop Fenwick dedicated the church to St. Mary.
Father Corry would continue to serve the parish until August 1837, when he was replaced by Father William Wiley. Father Wiley found the Catholic population in the town had increased considerably since 1828, from about 150 Catholics to 500, and that the church was no longer adequate to serve such a large population. Unfortunately, an economic depression made expanding the current building or constructing a new one unfeasible.
Father Wiley was replaced in early 1842 by Father Dennis Ryan, who was subsequently succeeded by Father Richard A. Wilson. By about 1846, the church had fallen into disrepair and was deemed unsafe for occupancy, so Bishop John Fitzpatrick tasked Father Wilson with making the few repairs necessary to make it safe and, simultaneously, to begin preparations to build a new church. A plot of land opposite the existing church was purchased in February 1848 and construction began one year later.
The parish seemed well on its way to having a new church, when on Dec. 1, 1849, strong winds knocked down the walls, exposing the poor work of the contractor, and drawing criticism to Bishop Fitzpatrick and his relative who was responsible for overseeing construction. The episode prompted Father Wilson's resignation, leaving Taunton without a pastor for nearly two years, until Father Hearne arrived in the spring of 1852.
Father Hearne, according to his obituary, was born in Carrick-on-the-Suir, Ireland, in 1798. He was educated at St. Patrick College in Maynooth before serving as pastor of a parish in Manchester, England, for 28 years, where he oversaw the construction of a new church. He was in Rome during a revolution in 1848 and survived an assassination attempt, which left him without the use of his right hand. He arrived in the United States in 1850, intending to raise funds for the University of Ireland, but soon offered his services to Bishop Fitzpatrick and was sent to Taunton.
His first task was to try and "pacify the acrimonious disposition of the people" by addressing their understandable ire over how construction had proceeded. Repairs had been made to the damaged structure, but the congregation refused to use it and demanded a new building be started from scratch.
What remained of the brick structure was removed, and on the same site, construction of a new stone church began in June 1854. His obituary recounts that during its construction he fell 40 feet from the tower and miraculously survived, but this left him in a poor state of health, and he was advised to resign by his physician.
From the January 1865 letter, it seems that Father Hearne attempted to carry on as the administrator of the parish, but admits that resigning is "what I should have long since done." He offers to remain in the area, helping the two new priests assigned to Taunton get acclimated, and also notes that he has "always abstained from making what is called a Purse thinking that a kind providence would never let me perish, at present I am without a cent in a large big house (rectory) and feel rather uncomfortable in my situation and beg that you will relive me as soon as possible."
Father Thomas Shahan arrived from Salem to assume his role as pastor on Jan. 1, 1865, assisted by Father Cornelius M. Foley. There are several financial reports from the parish held by the archive, and the bishops' journal also notes on Jan. 4 that Father Shahan found the debt in Taunton greater than supposed. His assessment of the mission's books found that nearly $80,000 was needed to pay debts, and another $10,000 to 20,000 needed to complete the new church. It is unclear whether this is due to mismanagement by Father Shahan's predecessors, or simply a result of the circumstances previously described.
Father Shahan halted construction and focused on paying the parish debts, though he did spend $3,500 to purchase the home referenced in Father Hearne's letter, which continued to be used as a rectory, and the money paid to Father Hearne supporting him through his few remaining days. The Pilot reported his death on Aug. 12, 1865, stating that it came as no surprise as he had spent his remaining days at Carney Hospital in South Boston after departing Taunton.
Taunton remained part of the Diocese of Boston until the Diocese of Providence, which included several counties in southeastern Massachusetts, was created in 1872. Today, the city is part of the Diocese of Fall River, which was established in 1904.
- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.