A long and successful term of service has been that of Rev. Edward A. Higney, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church of Newport, Rhode Island, who took charge there January 18, 1912, and is still ably leading the people of that parish (1930).
St. Joseph’s parish is, in reality, the oldest in Newport, though its existence has not been continuous. On August 20, 1837, Rt. Rev. Bishop Fenwick of Boston dedicated the first Catholic Church erected in Newport. It was a frame building, sixty-five by forty, with a gallery at the end, located on Barney Street, on the first land ever owned by Catholics in the State of Rhode Island, and was placed under the patronage of St. Joseph. Ten years later the building was pronounced unsafe and plans were made for a new church on Spring Street. The new church was placed under the patronage of St. Mary, and the old building, being no longer needed, was sold August 5, 1863, with the provision that it be removed from the premises. After the completion of St. Mary’s Church the Newport mission was known as St. Mary’s parish and was no longer called St. Joseph’s. However, when conditions in the northern part of the town warranted a second parish in Newport, the new parish of St. Joseph was formed January 15, 1885, and Rev. James Coyle, of the Cathedral at Providence, later Monsignor Coyle, was placed in charge. On Sunday, January 22, 1885, the first mass was celebrated in the old Unitarian Church on Mill Street, the building which, during the World War, was known as “The Community House,” and which in 1922 was purchased by the Knights of Columbus Home Corporation. In March, 1885, the Zion Episcopal Church on Touro Street was purchased by Rev. James Coyle, pastor, and Dr. Horatio R. Storer and Michael F. Shea, trustees, for the sum of $15,025. When necessary repairs and alterations had been made the church and adjoining chapel were dedicated on Sunday, September 6, 1886, by Rt. Rev. Thomas F. Hendricken, bishop of Providence. By the second year of its existence as a separate parish St. Joseph’s was not only clear of debt but was ready to enlarge its material possessions. On January 13, 1887, the Young estate on Touro Street, adjoining the church property, was purchased for the sum of $28,500. The following May work was started on the new rectory, which was finished and occupied by October 13, 1887. Previous to that date Father Coyle had lived in the tenement over Easterbrook’s market on Broadway, opposite the City Hall. One of the first cares of Father Coyle was to provide a parish school for the children of St. Joseph’s. The two purchases, Zion Episcopal Church and the Young Estate, had burdened the parish heavily with debt, and the establishment of the school represented a problem. Father Coyle decided to use the building on the Young Estate, a relic of Revolutionary days, well-built, but not spacious enough to accommodate all the children. Four Sisters of St. Joseph came to assist him in September, 1889, and from that time to the present the schools have remained in their charge. This first parish school opened in what is the present high school building, Father Coyle called St. Joseph’s Academy. A tuition fee of ten dollars a year was charged, but Father Coyle aimed to have, as soon as possible, a much larger school, better equipped and free. Less than two years later, Mr. George Babcock Hazard, a non-Catholic gentleman of Newport, who was wealthy and a great friend of Father Coyle’s, by a most extraordinary gift, made possible the building of the new school, which was called the Hazard Memorial School. The cornerstone was laid by Bishop Harkins August 6, 1890, and the school was dedicated August 2, 1891. The building is of pressed brick with Amherst stone trimming and is three stories high, the main building covering a space seventy-eight by sixty-five feet, with wings thirty by twenty-two feet at either end. Large, airy classrooms, modernly equipped throughout and finished in hardwood, are provided with gas and electric lights. At first the third floor was used as a hall, accommodating about one thousand persons, but before 1922 the enrollment had so increased that it was necessary to use part of the hall space for class rooms. The school was opened in September, 1891 and the pupils took possession September 8, with appropriate ceremonies. The old house on the Young Estate was then remodeled as a convent for the use of the Sisters and a room on the second floor converted into a chapel. The faculty was increased to ten Sisters and one lay teacher. On September 18, 1896, Father Coyle was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Taunton, Massachusetts, after a long and successful pastorate of twelve years at St. Joseph’s. A church, grammar school, high school, a prosperous Sunday school, church societies, a rectory, a convent all were the fruits of his labors.
Rev. Louis J. Deady was the next pastor. He had built a beautiful new church at St. Louis’ parish at Fall River, Massachusetts, and upon coming to St. Joseph’s in Newport he promptly decided that a larger church was needed and began collecting for a “building fund.” On January 31, 1898, the Kimber Estate, located on the comer of Broadway and Mann Avenue, was purchased. On September 21, 1901, adjoining land located on Mann Avenue, and the house upon it, were purchased. Plans for the new church were drawn by Mr. Creighton Withers, and on October 28, 1904, the contract was awarded for the foundation and basement. These were nearly finished when Father Deady was transferred to Sacred Heart Church in Pawtucket. Meantime, the construction of St. Anthony’s Church in the eastern end of the town had been begun in 1901. Father James Mahan, who succeeded Father Deady, continued the work of building the new church, but he changed the plans and specifications, providing for a brick building instead of a granite structure. The cornerstone was laid August 27, 1911. Father Mahan lived to see the cross raised on the church, but died January 13, 1912, and was succeeded by the present pastor, Rev. Edward A. Higney, who took charge January 18, 1912.
Rev. Edward A. Higney was ordained at St. John’s Lateran Basilica in Rome, Italy, May 27, 1893. After his ordination he returned to this country and was appointed assistant in the Church of the Sacred Heart in East Providence, where he worked with Father Harty for nine years. He then served at St. Patrick’s, Providence, for four and a half years, at the end of which time he was made a pastor and assigned to St. James’ Church at Arctic, Rhode Island, where he rendered able service for five and a half years. On January 18, 1912, he came to his present charge as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church of Newport, Rhode Island. His first task awaited him in the completion of the unfinished church, which task he accomplished in less than a year, the dedication taking place September 8, 1912, when Rt. Rev. Bishop Harkins presided and the sermon was preached by the Very Rev. Edmund T. Shanahan of the Catholic University of America, Washington, District of Columbia.
The new church is truly beautiful. Romanesque in style, with granite foundation and superstructure of brick with terra cotta trimming its lines and its proportions attract and satisfy the artistic eye. Inside, it is large and spacious, its unique but comfortable pews providing seating for about 1,100 persons. The three altars of Carrara marble are of the finest workmanship, the two side altars harmonizing with the main altar, one dedicated to St. Joseph and the other to Mary, Mother of Jesus. The floor of the sanctuary and the altar steps are of marble and the sanctuary lamp and altar rail are of bronze. The pulpit is of carved wood, and on the opposite pillar is a crucifix of carved wood, both wonderful specimens of the woodcarver’s art. On the walls are the fourteen stations of the cross, all in mosaic. Stained glass windows from Munich, Bavaria, represent scenes from the life of Christ and the saints and mellow the light which comes into the church. The chapel is completely finished and furnished, the altar, sanctuary rail, statues of the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Virgin and St. Anthony, and the wooden crosses for the stations of the cross were taken from the old church. Thus the chapel links the present with the past.
Soon after the completion of the new church Father Higney had the old church building remodeled into the best hall in Newport. In 1918 Father Higney celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination by a campaign to wipe out the debt which encumbered the parish. The drive began on August 2 and at the end of the allotted time the teams had collected the desired $75,000 and $12,330 more. So the debt was wiped out. At the present time (1930) the parish numbers about 5,000 souls. There is a Sunday school with an enrollment of 400 pupils. The grammar school takes care of five hundred pupils, and there are one hundred and thirty pupils in the high school.
In 1927 Father Higney built a fine new rectory containing twenty-five rooms, and the parish is now thoroughly well equipped in every particular. The church societies are well organized and prosperous and include a Holy Name Society, Children of Mary Sodality, Blessed Virgin Mary Society, Holy Rosary Society and a St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Father Higney is much beloved by his people and he has the well-earned respect of the community in general in Newport, regardless of religious affiliations. He has accomplished much during the eighteen years of his pastorate, both spiritually and materially, and his influence is apparent everywhere in the parish.
Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.