William Stang (1854-1907) was born in Langenbucken, Germany, studied for the Catholic priesthood at Louvain in Belgium, and was ordained in June 1878. Little else is known of his early life.
Irish-born bishop Thomas F. Hendricken (whose surname indicates his German ancestor) sought a German-speaking priest for the small but growing German community in the Diocese of Providence. His choice was young William Stang who began his designated ministry in late 1878. By the following March, he began holding prayer services and instructions for German Catholics in the old Providence cathedral to which he had been assigned. Father Stang did what he could to meet the needs of local Germans in Providence and other parts of the diocese. A news story in April, 1885 mentions that he had just given a mission to the German Catholic population of New Bedford.
Notwithstanding his efforts, Stang was unable to establish a German national parish in Rhode Island, because German Catholics “were not yet wealthy or numerous enough to build a church,” according to an 1886 religious survey. Although their population continued to increase, the rapidity of their assimilation, their pattern of dispersal, the lack of conflict between Germans and the dominant Irish, and the relatively small size of the local German community combined to prevent a German parish from ever being formed within the state.
Despite this disappointment, Stang’s great talent and intellect led him down other paths. When Matthew Harkins became bishop in 1886, Stang became one of his principal advisors. He was appointed the rector of the new Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul and became a major force in the establishment of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Providence and that project’s treasurer and principal fundraiser. It was no accident that German-American architect William Schickel of New York City was chosen to design the handsome four-story brick building.
On March 19, 1895, the feast of St. Joseph, Harkins blessed the new building. Three days later Stang left for Louvain where he had been summoned to teach Pastoral and Moral Theology. At the urging of Bishop Harkins, Stang was returned to Providence in June 1899 where he resumed supervision of the hospital while working with the diocesan mission band and performing pastoral duties. He continued these various tasks until his ordination as the first bishop of Fall River in May 1904.
Bishop Stang’s reception in Fall River was enthusiastic with an estimated 25,000 people staging a “monster demonstration” of welcome. During his brief tenure Stang would establish a total of eleven parishes, seven of them national. First among the latter was the Portuguese church of Espirto Santo in Fall River, most gratifying was the German church of St. Boniface in New Bedford. Although he supported the use of national parishes for cultural purposes, Stang opposed divisive nationalism.
During his episcopacy and with his support, St. Anne’s Hospital was founded and staffed by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation. The bishop also wrote three Lenten pastoral letters and one entitled The Teaching of the Catechism. A much earlier pamphlet by Stang may have helped him to climb the hierarchical ladder. It was entitled Germany’s Debt to Ireland.
Stang’s most significant literary and philosophical effort was a scholarly book entitled Socialism and Christianity in which he condemned socialism while defending the rights of workers. Stang recognized the legitimacy of the laborers’ claim to a fair share of the wealth that they created, supported the trade union movement as a means to achieve social justice, and acknowledged labor’s right to strike as a last resort “to restrain the despotism of capital.”
In January 1907, Stang traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for a risky surgical procedure to remove an intestinal tumor that Dr. Mayo found to be “non-malignant.” Despite the apparent success of the operation, the bishop developed a serious infection and died on February 2, 1907 at the age of fifty-two. Thus ended the all-to-brief career of a priest described by one contemporary as a man who “always commands respect, mingled on closer acquaintance with admiration for the qualities of mind and heart he displays.”