On November 28, 1912, the Roman Catholic parish of Saint Anthony of Padua (SA) celebrated the completion of its massive edifice with a High Mass on Thanksgiving Day. The parish of French-Canadian mill operatives was established in 1895, the 700th anniversary of the birth of Anthony in Lisbon.
French-Canadians came to New Bedford in great numbers between 1860 and 1930 to work in the booming textile mills. Fiercely proud of their religious and cultural traditions, these “working people of St. Antoine” made sure the spire of their new church would be taller than any factory smokestack under which they toiled. SA was at once a dramatic statement to the community at-large that the French-Canadians had taken their place in the city.
The first pastor, Rev. Hormisdas Deslauriers (1861-1916), envisioned a grand church for the parish which then occupied a wood frame building on a former Ricketson estate. His father was a builder of churches in Québec.
Montreal architect, Joseph Venne completed his plans for a cathedral-like church in 1902. Venne was instrumental in defining the look of Montréal, designing over 100 buildings from 1880 to 1925. He was also responsible for drafting Montreal’s first Building Code and pioneering the construction of fire-resistant buildings.
The chronology of the Fall River Diocese suggests there was hope in 1902 among the French-Canadian community that New Bedford might become the seat of a new Diocese and so SA’s grand architectural plan included many hallmarks of a cathedral. However, Fall River’s designation and the laying of SA’s cornerstone came within three months of each other in 1904.
The dimensions of the church edifice are colossal. The steeple rises 256 feet and can be seen miles out to sea by homebound fishing boats, its main spire aligning with the open gates of New Bedford’s Hurricane Barrier. Within, the nave is 80 ft. wide; it is 65 ft. high. The transept measures 135 ft. across. Above the nave, the triforium – a projecting walkway formed by an elaborate colonnade – forms the upper periphery between the nave and the clerestory.
The nave seats 1400; the balcony: 300, the choir loft, 40; the Sanctuary Chancel, 100; total capacity: 1,840. The exterior is constructed of Springfield red sandstone quarried at Springfield/Longmeadow, MA. It has been blackened by decades of soot spewed from city textile mills where most of the parishioners once worked.
Built in the traditional Romanesque Cruciform style, its nave is barrel-vaulted, with the windows and doors rounded at their tops. The Tympanum above the main doors carries a Latin inscription, which translates: “The working people of Saint Anthony hath built this temple to the Lord.”
Chief designer and artist of the interior, Giovanni Castagnoli (1863-1914) was born in Borgo Taro, Italy, near Parma and studied art in Florence. Angels figure prominently in his design. There are 32 large angels mounted in the nave and sanctuary; six are 10 ½ feet tall, and 26 are 8 ½ feet tall.
Angels also flank Castagnoli’s massive Stations of the Cross, said to be some of the largest Stations in the world. His crowning achievement, however, is the “Vision of Saint Anthony,” a massive statuary group sculpted in full-round, rising 60 ft. above the main altar.
The interior marble surfaces were created by a technique called scagliola by Joseph Martinelli Studios of New York. The process involved inculcating the final plaster surfaces with marble dust and special pigments, skillfully applied to imitate marble. Martinelli created similar effects at some of the pavilions of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. It was at the Exposition that electric lights made a sensation, used by the thousands to decorate its ornate buildings (the Electric Tower still stands in Buffalo, NY).
The installation of thousands of electric lights throughout SA’s ceilings and arches was meant to inspire. In an era when electric light was still a relatively new phenomenon, its impact doubtless created wonderment. Electricians from Montreal and local crews, installed 5,500 lights into the decorative plaster. Recently, many were replaced with custom LEDs by Imtra, a leading manufacturer of marine lighting, located in New Bedford.
The 1903 black slate 400A switchboard built by the Trumbull Electric Co. controls the lighting. The switchboard consists of 26 knife switches. Chief Inspector of Wires, Hugh Murray, saved the glass-enclosed switchboard in 1984, declaring it a rare example of the finest early electrical work.
In 1952, Rev. Albert Berube commissioned Guido Nincheri (1885-1973) to further enhance Castagnoli’s interior with 117 stained glass windows. The work required 9,000 pieces of glass and 2,670 hours of work, which was executed in Nincheri’s Montreal atelier. Nincheri also created the murals for the ceilings and upper niches of the Cerestory.
Born in Prato in Tuscany, Nincheri immigrated to Montréal in 1914. Considered to be one of the masters of stained glass in Canada, he earned many titles, including Knight-Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester, by Pope Pius XI, who lauded him as one of the great artists of the Church. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. It was there that the master Adolfo De Carolis taught him the technique of fresco.
Nincheri devoted most of his career to the making religious art and there are few known examples of his secular work: the interior decoration of the Chateau Dufresne and the interior decoration of the Roger Williams Park Natural History Museum, in Providence Rhode Island, where Nincheri lived toward the end of his life.
Nincheri’s design for SA also called for a new marble pulpit cut from white Carrara marble, which was executed by Del Bono del Arte, a prestigious atelier in Marno, Italy. It weighs 15,000 lbs. and requiring special supports in the church basement . Installed in 1953, its façade features six niches in sienna marble, each with a statue of a saint carved in full, these being Doctors of the Church: St. John Chrysostom (Asia); St. Augustine (Africa); St. Anthony (Portugal/Italy); St. Albert the Great (Germany); St. Thomas Aquinas (Italy); St. Bernard (France).
The great Casavent Organ (opus 489) is massive: 4 manuals of 61 notes each; 56 stops; 30 couplers. Built by Casavant-Freres in 1912, the instrument has undergone extensive restoration, funded through a concerts series which has attracts some of the world’s most accomplished organists.
Today, though fewer of the congregation is of French-Canadian heritage, SA continues its role as a spiritual and cultural center of the North End of the city. Its food pantry feeds thousands annually.
Bishop James Cassidy, History of the Diocese of Fall River, Fall River, Mass. 1931.
Doris C. Quinton and Jean Weaver Swiszcz, History of St. Anthony of Padua Church, A Parish History, New Bedford: Spinner Publications, Inc., 1996.
Notice Historique; Saint Antoine de New Bedford, Mass., Montreal, Canada: Imprimerie du Messager, 1913.
Ellis, Leonard B. History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity, Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason and Co., 1892.