Rt. Rev. William Augustine Hickey, D. D., Count of the Catholic Church, Bishop Assistant at the Pontifical Throne, Commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, May 13, 1869, son of William and Margaret (Troy) Hickey. His father was among the first to respond to President Lincoln’s call for defenders of the Union, and served gallantly and loyally in army and navy through the Civil War. Bishop Hickey was educated in the public schools of Worcester, being graduated from the Worcester Classical High School. His college education was received at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, and his preparation for the Catholic priesthood was at the Grand Seminary at St. Sulpice, Paris, and at St. John’s Seminary, at Brighton, Massachusetts. He was ordained as priest at Christmas, 1893, by Most Rev. John J. Williams, D. D., Archbishop of Boston, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, and was assigned to the diocese of Springfield. He was curate successively at Whitinsville, Brookfield, Blackstone, Holyoke and Clinton, Massachusetts, before his first pastorate at the Church of St. Aloysius, Gilbertville, Massachusetts, to which he was assigned by the Rt. Rev. Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, in 1903. Himself a versatile linguist and understanding clearly, because of his contact with the cosmopolitan populations of the factory centers in which he had spent the first ten years of his priesthood, the problems involved in spiritual ministration to shy and humble strangers in a strange land, loving the sound of a kindly voice speaking their own language, the Sunday sermons at St. Aloysius were preached in English, French, Polish, and Lithuanian. After fourteen years at Gilbertville, Father Hickey was assigned as pastor of the Church of St. John at Clinton, Massachusetts. There he built a parish school, a twelve-room building with a large hall that could be used for parish community as well as school purposes. The building, which cost $150,000, was a model architecturally, and the school was a model academically; in the promotion of this school Father Hickey displayed the same zeal for education that was to characterize his labors in the diocese of Providence. Father Hickey had a splendid voice, with deep resonance and remarkable carrying power, an ease of delivery inherited from his Celtic ancestry, a grace of diction and a gift of oratory that made him equally at home on the public platform or in the pulpit. He could plead for a great cause as easily as he could teach a simple lesson on the Gospel in a Sunday sermon. He was sought immediately at the beginning of the World War, and gave freely of his time and service as a “four-minute man,’’ in one of the most remarkable appeals ever made to the American people. He was heard frequently during the war, advocating various patriotic measures. His father had offered his life for the defense of the Union; Father Hickey gave unstintingly all of his splendid eloquence for the saving of civilization. His service won him this encomium from Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts, himself one of the finest orators of the period: “Father Hickey has worn the black cassock of Christ. He has been a soldier camping in the homes of the sick and the poor under the white banner of the Church, fighting for salvation; has battled for Christ in the trenches of humanity. Not a day has passed over his head since our boys first left Clinton that he has not prayed for his people.” Father Hickey’s fluency in other languages than English made him particularly an asset in the patriotic movements of the war. As an illustration, it is related that at a reception tendered to Father Cabanel, chaplain of the French Battalion of “Blue Devils,” Colonel Azan, then assigned to the French military mission at Harvard University engaged in training officers, made a twenty-minute address in French; and that Father Hickey, immediately thereafter, at the request of Father Cabanel, delivered an English translation of the address, reproducing the eloquence of the French colonel in forceful English. A similar fluency appears frequently in his service as head of the diocese of Providence, when he addresses a congregation gathered for a church ceremony both in English and in the language also of any considerable number of the parishioners. His “Life of Christ,” translated from the French, was published in 1906.
Not quite two years after his assignment to St. John’s Church at Clinton Father Hickey was notified on January 16, 1919, that he had been appointed by Pope Benedict as Coadjutor Bishop of Providence with right of succession to Rt. Rev. Matthew Harkins, D. D. Father Hickey was consecrated as Coadjutor Bishop of Providence in S. S. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral at Providence on April 10, 1919, by Rt. Rev. Thomas D. Beaven, D. D., of Springfield, assisted by Rt. Rev. Louis S. Walsh, D. D., of Portland, Maine, and Rt. Rev. Daniel F. Feehan, D. D., of Fall River. On the same day he was designated by Bishop Harkins as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Providence. He became Bishop of Providence in his own right May 25, 1921, on the death of Bishop Harkins. During the two years as Coadjutor and Administrator, Bishop Hickey not only carried forward the diocesan labors from which Bishop Harkins had sought relief because of age and infirmity, but also undertook zealously the promotion of several projects that Bishop Harkins had planned. Among these was the completion of Harkins Hall, the first building tor Providence College, and the opening of the college, which was placed under the direction of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans. Bishop Harkins had considered the founding of the college as the crowning labor of his long episcopacy. Aided by Bishop Hickey, the college achieved a remarkable growth, attaining an enrollment of eight hundred students in its tenth year. The original hall had been enlarged to double its capacity”, another estate had been acquired, and the building thereon enlarged and remodeled as a dormitory for ecclesiastical students. One of the first projects promoted by Bishop Hickey was a drive to remove the debt resting on the college and to promote extension. Nearly a half-million dollars was realized in ten days of effective campaigning; the college debt was paid.
In the long years of service by Bishops O’Reilly, Tyler Hendricken and Harkins, a system of Catholic elementary schools had been built, while secondary education was provided principally at La Salle Academy for boys and St. Xavier’s Academy for girls. There were, besides, the Sacred Heart Academy at Elmhurst, St. Mary’s Seminary in East Providence, and several high schools in connection with elementary schools. Bishop Hickey was inspired to undertake a more liberal program for secondary education. In a drive planned to raise $1,000,000 in three years, cash payments and pledges were obtained to assure success immediately, and to warrant inaugurating the program. In this movement the Bishop was aided by the Catholic Crusaders, a body of clergy and laymen, who visited every parish to plead the cause of secondary education. The results of the “million dollar high school drive” have been a new La Salle Academy, an enlarged St. Xavier’s three new academies— Mount Saint Charles at Woonsocket, St. Raphael’s at Pawtucket, and De La Salle at Newport. With the Portsmouth Priory at the northern end of the Island of Rhode Island, the diocese of Providence has fifteen Catholic high schools and academies, enrolling over 2,300 pupils. A third major project undertaken by Bishop Hickey was a reorganization of Catholic charities and the financing of institutions—including hospitals, orphan asylums, homes for children, homes for aged people, day nurseries, eleemosynary relief, twenty-five institutions, altogether. These had been supported by collections taken in churches, by fairs, concerts, donations, and in various other ways, mostly casual and not dependable for regularity. Bishop Hickey planned placing the responsibility for Catholic charities directly at the doors of his people; the responsibility to be exemplified by an annual contribution to a general fund, apportionments from which should be made by a budgetary organization directed by the Bishop. Thus the needs of the charities are pooled and budgeted, and the burden of support has been reduced by the application of direct methods instead of indirect methods of collection. Three annual charity drives have been so wonderfully successful as to justify the Bishop’s faith, and in consequence of liberal contributions money has been made available, beyond the cost of maintenance, for a diocesan program for improvement of charitable estates. With all these extraordinary activities the Bishop has not neglected the constant propagation of the faith and the extension of the church. In the decade of his episcopacy splendid new churches, new schools, and new convents have arisen, commensurate with the needs of the largest religious body in the State of Rhode Island, enrolling in active practical membership, almost half of the total population. The Bishop’s zeal and accomplishment have been recognized. The Pope has awarded him the title of Count in the nobility of the Church, and has appointed him Bishop Assistant at the Pontifical Throne; the Government of Italy has made him a Commander in the Order of the Crown. Manhattan and Providence colleges have awarded him honorary degrees. His good counsel is welcomed in church conferences. The love of his people is manifested in their prompt and consistent response to his appeals in the name of charity and religion.