Bishop Matthew Harkins (1845-1921), was born in Boston, the son of Patrick and Mary Margaret (Kranich) Harkins, both immigrants from Ireland. After completing studies at Boston Latin, the future bishop attended Holy Cross College for a year, and then, in 1863, went abroad to study at the English College in Douai, France. Like so many other American clerics, he was ordained at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris on May 22, 1869. Then he studied at the Geogorian University in Rome. During his European tenure he acquired proficiency in French and Italian, a skill that later facilitated his work with Franco-American and Italo-American immigrant groups.
In 1870, Harkins returned to his native Archdiocese of Boston where he held a succession of successful pastorates. He won the attention and favor of Archbishop John Williams and accompanied him to the momentous Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. Upon return, Williams appointed Harkins to the important posts of archdiocesan consultor and synodal examiner.
When Bishop Thomas Hendricken’s death in 1886 caused a vacancy in the leadership of the Diocese of Providence, Harkins gained support for the post from Williams and Bishop James A. Healy of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, the first black prelate in the United States. Williams wrote to Rome that “I know the Rev. Matthew Harkins and can nominate him without reservation. He has all the qualities for the place.”
Williams was absolutely correct! Matthew Harkins presided over the diocese of Providence for more than one-third of its first century (1887-1921). This dignified prelate was renowned for his administrative ability, for his tact in handling immigrant assimilation, for the establishment of ethnic parishes, for his efforts in the field of education (especially the founding of Providence College), and perhaps above all, for the manner in which he extended the social and charitable apostolate of the Catholic Church.
This “Bishop of the Poor,” as he was sometimes called, found two diocesan social agencies when he came to Providence from the Boston archdiocese in 1887. When he died, there were more than twenty such agencies, including St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Vincent de Paul Infant Asylum, Carter Day Nursery, St. Margaret’s and St. Maria’s homes for working girls, and the House of the Good Shepherd. They were his legacy to the poor and the socially deprived. Thanks to Harkins, the Diocese of Providence provided more social services than the state itself in the years prior to the New Deal. Harkins, in fact, administered so effectively that a visiting European priest in 1921 informed his superiors that “Providence is the pearl among the dioceses of the United States.”
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