Original edict of Pope Leo XIII to form the Diocese of Trenton, 1881. Monitor file photo
Original edict of Pope Leo XIII to form the Diocese of Trenton, 1881. Monitor file photo
When the edict pronounced by Pope Leo XIII became public that the Capitol City of New Jersey would be the central locus of a new See in 1881, the faithful who resided not only within the city limits of Trenton, but in the central and southern parts of the state rejoiced as they had found a formally recognized spiritual home which has endured to the present day. However, the story of Catholicism within what would become the Diocese of Trenton had a long and profound history previous to this announcement that set the foundation for what was to follow as we reflect on what special experiences helped lead us to this anniversary year.

Centuries ago, English and French Catholics were beginning to make their presence known in what would eventually become the Diocese as early as 1672 within the villages of Salem and Woodbridge.  These early pioneers were known for their faith and enterprise as craftsmen who contributed handmade works to their respective communities and built respect and good will in the process.  However, these trailblazers often faced various hardships in regard to their choice of religious attachment.  Thankfully, these early adherents were able to endure and prosper as their descendants witnessed such seminal events as the Battle of Trenton in 1776 which helped America win independence along with the liberation displayed by Catholics of Trenton City who celebrated their first Mass in 1814. 

Geographical circumstances also played a part in the eventual founding of the Diocese of Trenton.  In 1789, The Most Rev. John Carroll was named the first Bishop of Baltimore and administered a territory that encompassed the entire nation including the State of New Jersey prior to 1808.  From this point forward, the Western part of the state was ecclesiastically placed under the newly created See of Philadelphia.  An additional geographical break came in 1853 when the Diocese of Newark was formed and consolidated the spiritual oversight of all Catholics who worshipped in New Jersey from High Point to Cape May, which all served as prelude to what happened 28 years later.    

The climate for Catholics during the 19th century was one of being a minority religion but achieving respect over time with revisions made to the New Jersey Constitution and anti-Catholic measures by 1844 and lessened Nativist political pressure by the post American Civil War era.  These changes, combined with Church reform initiatives including the Plenary Councils of Baltimore during the 1860s, helped with outside support as the Diocese of Trenton planned its present and future by the 1880s. 

Not only was Catholicism seen as a force to be preserved, but also keeping a unique identity alive via daily practice including church attendance, religious study, keeping the Commandments and support for the building of schools along with church edifices.  Within the See, circa 1881, the trailblazing 50+ priests, the over 20 parochial schools, 4800+ students and 50,000 faithful overall would set a solid foundation for fellow residents of the See to follow over time from the guidance of the Bishop Michael Joseph O’Farrell through the present leadership of Bishop David M. O’Connell. C.M.

Additionally, the creation of the Diocese of Trenton was a seminal moment not only in the historic annals of American Catholicism in general and the Garden State in particular, but truly represented the Universal Church within its boundaries as a spiritual residence for generations of Catholics who descended from ethnic and racially diverse émigrés from many lands across the globe.

The words of Bishop James A. McFaul, Second Bishop of Trenton, reflect the importance of the collective and the individuals who made up this spiritual community:  “We have glorious examples of the labors of those missionary priests in New Jersey ... and many others who climbed our mountains, traversed our plains and forests in pursuit of souls, deserve to be written in letters of gold and preserved in perpetual remembrance.”

These early pioneers were joined by several others who were dedicated to American Catholicism, but also had their roots in Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Romania, and later Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, making for a closer and more diverse community that has enhanced the Diocese of Trenton overall.

On a personal note, my own family were members of the St. Francis, Trenton community. Memories of Mass and fellowship with other parishioners often remind me of the enduring motto of: “Let Us Love One Another” which represented the Most Rev. John C. Reiss, eighth Bishop of Trenton, who was my first pastor and spiritual guide. His words speak to the core of an ideal that has bound together generations of the faithful, clergy, and friends of the Church alike.  This timeless pronouncement has touched upon all aspects related to the creation and maintenance of the Diocese of Trenton over the last 140 years. 

Alan Delozier is Executive Director of the New Jersey Catholic Historical Commission and Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University.