Established in 1881, the Diocese of Trenton is comprised of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties with a Catholic population of 830,000. The diocese has 211 priests, 338 permanent deacons and 450 religious men and women serving in 109 parishes, 36 Catholic elementary schools and 8 high schools.
Pope Leo XIII created the Diocese of Trenton in 1881, carving it out of the Diocese of Newark, which then covered all of New Jersey.
The new Diocese of Trenton, with Bishop Michael J. O'Farrell as its Chief Shepherd, included 14 counties and covered two-thirds of the area of New Jersey. It had about 35,000 Catholics in a general population of 413,693, with 51 priests.
In its nearly 127-year history, the diocese has been divided twice to establish new dioceses and today includes the four Central New Jersey counties of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean.
The roots of Catholicism in the area of the Trenton Diocese go back more than 250 years, and its history is characterized by tremendous growth.
Jesuit Father Joseph Greaton arrived in Philadelphia in 1729 and built Old St. Joseph Church, on Willings Alley at Fourth St. About 1732, he took charge of the West Jersey mission territory extending from Trenton to Cape May.
A few years later, visits to the widely scattered Catholic families were recorded by Father Theodore Schneider, another Jesuit, who visited the iron furnaces in the southern part of the state in 1744. Traveling on horseback, by stagecoach and riverboat, the energetic Jesuit covered all of south and central Jersey, as well as parts of eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.
When Father Schneider died in 1764, Father Ferdinand Steinmeyer, another Jesuit, succeeded him. Also known as Father Ferdinand Farmer, he traversed the state from Philadelphia to New York twice yearly visiting scattered Catholic families. He continued the ministry until his death in 1786.
When the dioceses of New York and Philadelphia were established in 1808, West Jersey, the southern part, came under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the bishops of Philadelphia. When the Diocese of Newark was established in 1853, all of the state was in its jurisdiction.
About 1804, records show, Mass was celebrated in the printing office of Isaac Collins at Queen and Second Streets (now State and Broad Streets) in the heart of the Trenton business district.
From 1811 to l8l4, Mass was celebrated in the Federal St. home of John Baptist Sartori, a consular official who represented the commercial interests of the Papal States in Italy.
When the number of Catholics coming to Mass became too much for the Sartori residence, it was decided to purchase land for a church to accommodate the growing congregation.
With the encouragement of Bishop Michael Egan, the first Bishop of Philadelphia, Sartori and John Hargous bought a plot at Lamberton and Market Sts. A small brick church was erected and dedicated to St. John in 1814. The congregation was the first Catholic parish in the state.
Some time later, a new parish church was built on South Broad St. Following a devastating fire in 1883, a new church was erected and dedicated to the Sacred Heart. That makes Trenton's Sacred Heart Parish, the oldest Catholic parish in New Jersey.
As the population of Trenton grew, new churches were built in Bordentown and Lambertville. In the 1860s, Father Anthony Smith saw the need for a new parish in the northern section of the city and, in 1865, purchased land where St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral stands.
The site of the Cathedral is the place where Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, commander of the Hessian troops, had his headquarters in December 1776 during the Battle of Trenton. Construction of the church took five years and it was finally dedicated by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Newark on Sunday, Jan. 1, 1871.
In 1860, there were 25,000 Catholics in New Jersey and, by 1880 there were 130,000.
In 1881, Pope Leo XIII established the Diocese of Trenton to serve the Catholics of the southern part of the state and named Father Michael J. O'Farrell of New York as its first bishop. At the time, the diocese had 68 churches, 23 parochial schools and 51 priests.
New Jersey's Catholic population continued to grow with immigration from Italy and eastern Europe. By 1910, it had grown to 440,000 and it climbed to 1,050,000 in 1930.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI created the Diocese of Camden to serve Catholics in the six counties in the southern part of the state, under Bishop Bartholomew Eustace. The now smaller Diocese of Trenton had a Catholic population of 210,114 in eight counties with 212 diocesan priests, 121 parishes and 70 parochial schools.
The decade of the 1950s was marked by innovation, tragedy and personal sorrow for the new prelate. Highlights of the decade for Bishop Ahr included his establishing more than 50 new parishes and blessing more than 250 new buildings, including 100 new churches and parish centers and 90 schools and school additions.
In early 1954, Bishop Ahr launched The Monitor, the official weekly newspaper of the diocese, to serve primarily as a medium through which members of the diocesan family might gain a greater knowledge of all that concerned their faith.
In the midst of this period of growth, tragedy struck March 14, 1956, when fire destroyed St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral and claimed the lives of Msgr. Richard T. Crean, the rector, and two housekeepers.
Leading a growing diocese that found itself in a significantly changing world, Bishop George W. Ahr took part in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and guided implementation of the council's decrees in the diocese. One such example would be the establishment of the permanent diaconate program in 1974, with 46 men selected from 135 applicants.
Bishop John C. Reiss, who had been auxiliary bishop of the diocese since 1967, succeeded Bishop Ahr on April 22, 1980, and led the celebration of the diocesan centennial in August 1981.
Just a few months later, on Nov. 24, the diocese, now with a Catholic population of 850,000, was divided again to establish the Diocese of Metuchen, which included the four northern counties of Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren.
Following the split, the Diocese of Trenton had a population of 447,915 Catholics in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties, within 119 parishes served by 193 diocesan priests and 105 religious priests.
After initiating the Emmaus program of priestly spirituality in 1982, Bishop John C. Reiss implemented the Renew process for lay spirituality, which brought parishioners together in small faith-sharing groups in five seasons from 1985 through 1987.
In 1986, Bishop John C. Reiss approved a new vicariate structure for administration of the diocese. On Jan. 13, 1991, he opened the Fourth Diocesan Synod during a Mass in St. Mary Cathedral. It came 60 years after the Third Synod.
On June 30, 1992, Bishop Reiss launched Faith-In-Service, a diocesan capital and endowment fund campaign, to ensure the financial stability of diocesan services. The campaign had a goal of $32 million and raised more than $38 million in gifts and pledges.
In 1982, Msgr. Edward U. Kmiec, who had been master of ceremonies and secretary for Bishop George W. Ahr and later for Bishop Reiss, was named Auxiliary Bishop of Trenton. Ten years later, Bishop Kmiec was appointed Bishop of Nashville, Tenn., and served there until Aug. 12, 2004 when he was named by Pope John Paul II to become the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, NY.
On Nov. 21, 1995, Bishop John M. Smith was named Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton, to one day succeed Bishop Reiss as bishop of the diocese. Bishop Smith, a native of the Newark Archdiocese and a former Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, at the time was Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, FL. He was officially welcomed to the diocese during a concelebrated Mass Feb. 22, 1996, and succeeded Bishop John C. Reiss as Chief Shepherd of the Diocese upon his retirement July 1, 1997.
In his 13 years leading the Diocese of Trenton, Bishop John M. Smith is responsible for fostering numerous initiatives that have served the people of the diocese and beyond.
Following the call of Pope John Paul II to place ever-advancing communications technologies at the service of the Gospel, Bishop Smith oversaw the diocese's establishment of an Internet presence with the launch of the diocesan website (www.dioceseoftrenton.org) in 2000. He also championed the diocese's newly-created teen talk show, Realfaith TV, which is televised and webcast throughout North America and has garnered numerous prestigious awards.
That online presence has grown significantly in the decade that followed, with specially targeted websites for the diocese's Hispanic Apostolate; Ministry of Vocations; the sanctity of human life with (www.respectlifetoday.com) and, most recently, The Monitor online (www.TrentonMonitor.com).
Bishop Smith has also shepherded the diocese toward new ways to be Church in response to new and changing realities. As part of the call to empower the laity and prepare lay men and women for ministry in the diocese, Bishop Smith created the Institute for Lay Ecclesial Ministry, which has formed and commissioned 110 individuals to date.
In order that parishes might be more effective and engaging in their ministry and outreach to their parishioners and the wider community, particularly in response to population changes and a declining number of priests, Bishop Smith set forth "The 11 Elements of a Vibrant Parish" in 2000 and launched a consultative study process in the years that followed in support of those ideals. The study gave rise to parish restructuring that reduced the number of parishes to 111 to date, and pointed to areas of interparochial cooperation and collaboration to enhance their ability to serve the shared needs of their people.
With declining enrollment in Catholic schools, Bishop Smith also called for a strategic planning process to determine the best ways to preserve Catholic education in the diocese for generations to come. In January 2006, Bishop Smith announced the "Commitment to Excellence" initiative and action plan that enumerated new measures in school leadership, marketing and financial management, and benchmarks that schools needed to achieve in enrollment, class size and curriculum development.
In August 2009, Bishop Smith officially inaugurated and promulgated a new diocesan pastoral plan, "Led By the Spirit," the result of nearly two years of consultation with Catholics throughout the diocese. The plan identifies seven pastoral priorities -- dealing with charity and justice, pastoral leadership, ethnic diversity, youth and young adult ministry, faith formation and Sunday worship - and resulted in a restructuring of the diocesan administrative structure that better supports the priorities. Since the promulgation, all parishes have been engaged in developing action plans in service to "Led By the Spirit."
On June 4, 2010, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, named Vincentian Father David M. O'Connell, C.M., president of The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. as coadjutor bishop of Trenton. As required by Church law, Bishop John M. Smith submitted his resignation to the Holy See on June 23, his 75th birthday.
Bishop O'Connell was ordained to the episcopacy for the Diocese of Trenton on July 30 by Bishop John M. Smith in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., became the new bishop on Dec. 1, 2010.
As the Diocese and the world strode deeper into the 21st century, Bishop O’Connell envisioned projects and programs with an eye toward the future, illustrating that the ancient tenets of the Catholic Church are more than ready to embrace modern technology.
Early in 2011, Bishop O’Connell launched his monthly live radio call-in program, “A Shepherd’s Voice,” on Domestic Church Media, allowing Catholics in all four counties of the Diocese to hear and interact with their bishop.
During this time, the bishop also implemented a reorganization of the administrative and ministerial offices of the Diocese.
With his decades-long involvement in Catholic education, Bishop O’Connell instituted a number of enhancements in the field of Catholic education including the institution of the annual diocesan-wide Catholic Schools Mass which has since drawn more than 800 students, teachers and administrators each year to gather in praise of faith-based education.
In addition, Bishop O’Connell’s first annual Bishop’s Appeal included an expanded goal, $1 million of which would be dedicated to Catholic school tuition assistance, as a way of giving schools extra support for one year before a special study was to begin..
A Commission for the Study of the Sustainability of Our Catholic Schools, comprised of parents, clergy, educators, business persons and diocesan administrators, was convened by Bishop O’Connell early in 2012 and tasked with a four-fold mission: to investigate the short and long term sustainability of Catholic schools within the Diocese; to develop uniform criteria to apply across the board in this analysis; to identify those Catholic schools that appear to be sustainable to create a long term plan for those schools, and to identify those Catholic schools within the Diocese that appear to be at risk.
As an answer to the call of Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate the Year of Faith “in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope,” Bishop O’Connell charged a committee to organize the Diocese’s first Eucharistic Congress Oct. 12-14 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. The three-day congress drew an estimated 20,000 men, women, teens and children who took part in Masses, Eucharistic Adoration, concerts, dramatic and cultural performances, spiritual talks and more.
Bishop O’Connell penned his first pastoral letter, “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church: I Believe, We Believe,” in response to the Year of Faith, which was officially released Sept. 13, 2012.
Superstorm Sandy, the worst storm on record to strike the Mid-Atlantic coastline, inflicted severe damage in Monmouth and Ocean counties in the Diocese as it made landfall Oct. 28-29. But despite the lack of electrical power, gasoline shortages and personal property damage, the Catholic community of the Diocese of Trenton came together as a caring family, shouldered the load, and found strength in their faith and each other. Damage to parish and school properties was estimated at over $12 million, and more than 50 locations sustained some level of measurable damage. But the people of the Diocese rallied and donated more than $1 million in storm relief. In addition, the diocesan Office of Catholic Social Services announced a Long-Term Recovery Plan, with financial assistance and other forms of aid available to those affected through a number of agencies, including Catholic Charities, which would celebrate its centennial a few months later. Also in 2012, at the invitation of Bishop O’Connell, the Diocese of Trenton became the first national diocesan-wide secondary school chapter of the Catholic Athletes for Christ, an integrated network of sports-oriented clergy and lay people to serve Catholic athletes, coaches and staff in the practice of their faith and utilize the unique platform given to them to reach the world for Jesus Christ and His Church. A 29-person committee was formed to establish, outline and implement the CAC in the eight secondary schools of the Diocese.
The Diocese mourned the death of retired Bishop John C. Reiss, eighth bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, who died Sunday, March 4, 2012, in Morris Hall, Lawrenceville, at age 89. Bishop Reiss held the distinct honor of being the only priest born in the Trenton Diocese to serve as both an auxiliary bishop and then bishop in his home diocese.
Bishop O’Connell closed out the Year of Faith in 2013 with a series of pastoral essays on the new evangelization. The series, which appeared in consecutive issues of The Monitor, explored several key areas and their impact on the new evangelization, including adult faith formation; Catholic education; parish religious education, and the transformation/conversion of culture.
During 2014, Bishop O’Connell’s writings grew to include a new catechetical series on the sacraments, with the first installment on Baptism, and later including Confirmation, Penance, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.
In 2015, two sweeping diocesan campaigns were instituted which would bolster the Diocese for years to come. The “Faith in Our Future” initiative, launched at the beginning of Advent, involved all 107 parishes of the Diocese, as well as diocesan organizations and ministries. Its five main goals were to strengthen and enliven the parishes and diocesan organizations; to explore new models of leadership in parishes and ministries to address the problems or retiring clergy and religious; to improve stewardship of personnel, finances and facilities; to establish collaborative relationships among parishes, and to provide for pastoral ministry to Hispanic Catholics.
“Faith to Move Mountains,” the first diocesan endowment campaign in more than 20 years, to sustain the future of the Diocese with sacrificial gifts of pledges. The Diocese planned to allocate the funds in six categories: parishes, diocesan assistance funds for parishes, catechesis and evangelization, Catholic schools, ordained ministry and social services.
“Catholic Schools Have it All” was launched in 2015, with a renewed emphasis on the importance of faith-based education. The comprehensive multimedia campaign, complete with video, posters, billboards and a new website promoted both Bishop O’Connell’s direct appeal for families to send their children to Catholic schools, and vital testimony from educators, families and others as to their value.
The September 2015 visit of Pope Francis to New York, Washington and Philadelphia was a prime example of the power and immediacy of diocesan newsgathering as the Office of Communications, through its Department of Multimedia Production and diocesan newspaper, The Monitor, focused upon the participation of Trenton pilgrims with a special publication, live social media postings and a commemorative video. Bishop O’Connell was among those bishops present for the Mass in Philadelphia.
A year later, the Diocese joined with faithful around the world to celebrate the Sept. 4 canonization of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. Hundreds attended a Mass in Asbury Park, including local representatives of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order which the saint had founded. In addition to a premium edition of The Monitor dedicated to the event, a video commemorating Mother Teresa’s visit to the Diocese in 1995 was released.
Social media’s role in evangelization grew and changed over the course of 2016. While youth-centric Realfaith TV and diocesan talk show “The Catholic Corner” both concluded production, robust statistics on diocesan electronic platforms proved Catholics were spreading the word vigorously: between its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, the DOT engaged with more than 5,500 followers that year. In addition, the Diocese launched a new podcast, “Catching the Word” in late August, featuring segments by Bishop O’Connell and Father Garry Koch.
On April 11, 2016 Bishop O’Connell presented a proposal to the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops in Rome for the elevation of St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold, to the status of co-cathedral. The letter was then followed by a formal request.
The request was approved by the Holy See and announced by Bishop O’Connell on Christmas Eve, 2016. Bishop O’Connell and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, signed the “acta” or official document of elevation on Feb. 19, 2017, during a Mass with 1,300 clergy, religious and lay faithful in attendance.
The centrally-located house of worship, which provides greater access for the vast four-county diocese, had been the site of a growing number of diocesan liturgies and large-scale meetings over the past years. Its elevation to the dignity of a co-cathedral recognized, in the words of Bishop O’Connell, “the role it has played and will continue to play in meeting the needs associated with the life and activities of the Diocese of Trenton.”
Since the creation of the Diocese of Trenton by Pope Leo XIII in 1881 there have been 10 bishops, each of whom has adapted his own personal motto:
Bishop Michael J. O’Farrell (1881-1894)
Bishop James A. McFaul (1894-1917)
Bishop Thomas J. Walsh (1918-1928)
Bishop John J. McMahon (1928-1932)
Bishop Moses E. Kiley (1934-1940)
Bishop William A. Griffin (1940-1950)
Bishop George W. Ahr (1950-1979)
Bishop John Reiss (1980-1997)
Bishop John M. Smith (1997-2010)
Bishop David M. O’Connell (2010--)