Skip to main content

Our History

Our History

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 163 priests, 246 permanent deacons and 323 religious men and women serving in 107 parishes, 31 Catholic elementary schools and 7 high schools.

Diocese's 136-year history built on service to God's people

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 136-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.

Our Roots

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.

Our First Parish

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.

Our Diocese is Established

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.

One Hundred Years

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.


Preparing for a New Millennium

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.

A New Era

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 ( 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 ( and, most recently, The Monitor online (

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.

Our Bishops

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)
“Sinite Parvulos Venire Ad Me”
“ Let the Little Ones Come Unto Me”

 Bishop James A. McFaul (1894-1917)
“Gratia Dei Sum Id Quod Sum”
“By the Grace of God I am What I Am”

Bishop Thomas J. Walsh (1918-1928)
“Funda Nos In Pace”
“Strengthen us in Peace”

Bishop John J. McMahon (1928-1932)
“Nos Novi Per Gratiam”
“We Are Renewed by Grace”

Bishop Moses E. Kiley (1934-1940)
“Ut Sim Fidelis”
“That I May Be Faithful”

Bishop William A. Griffin (1940-1950)
“Monstra Te Esse Matrem”
“Show Yourself to Be a Mother”

Bishop George W. Ahr (1950-1979)
“Maria, Spes Mea”
“Mary, My Hope”

Bishop John Reiss (1980-1997)
“Amemus Ad Invicem”
“Let Us Love One Another”

Bishop John M. Smith (1997-2010)
“Servite Domino In Laetitia”
“Serve the Lord With Gladness”


Bishop David M. O’Connell (2010--)
"Ministrare non Ministrari"
“To serve and not to be served”


The Catholic Diocese of Trenton, 701 Lawrenceville Road, Trenton, NJ 08648