Discover the Diocese of Trenton

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton is a diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in southern New JerseyUnited States. Its ecclesiastic territory includes the counties of Burlington, Monmouth, Ocean, and Mercer (where Trenton, the capital city of New Jersey, is located).

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.


Catholicism in the what is now the diocese dates back more than 250 years.

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 Jerseymission 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 andDelaware.

When Schneider died in 1764, Father Ferdinand Steinmeyer, another Jesuit, succeeded him. Also known as Father Ferdinand Farmer, he traversed the state from Philadelphia toNew 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.

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 Michael Egan, the first Bishop of Philadelphia, Sartori and John Hargous bought a plot at Lamberton and Market Streets. 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 Street. Following a devastating fire in 1883, a new church was erected and dedicated to the Sacred Heart. 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 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 dedicated by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Newark on the Sunday of 1 January 1871.

Diocese 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 by 1930 it had climbed to 1,050,000.

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 BishopBartholomew 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.

Much of the growth of the Catholic population in the Trenton Diocese took place during the episcopacy of Bishop George W. Ahr, from 1952 to his retirement, on 23 June 1979, an era in which the Catholic population grew to more than 800,000.

Ahr established more than 50 new parishes and blessed more than 250 new buildings, including 100 new churches and parish centers and 90 schools and school additions.

On 14 March 1956, in the midst of the tremendous growth, tragedy struck when fire destroyed St. Mary’s Cathedral, claiming the lives of the rector, Msgr. Richard T. Crean, and two housekeepers.

In a diocese that was growing and a world that was changing, Ahr took part in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and guided implementation of the council’s decrees in the diocese.


On 22 April 1980, John C. Reiss, who had been auxiliary bishop of the diocese since 1967, succeeded Ahr and led the celebration of the diocesan centennial in August 1981.[citation needed]

Just a few months later, on 24 November 1980, the diocese, now with a Catholic population of 850,000, was divided again to establish theDiocese of Metuchen, which included the four northern counties of MiddlesexSomersetHunterdon and Warren.[citation needed]

Following the split, the Diocese of Trenton had a population of 447,915 Catholics in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties, with 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, Reiss implemented the Renew process for lay spirituality, which was intended to bring parishioners together in small faith-sharing groups in five seasons from 1985 through 1987.

In 1986, Reiss approved a new vicariate structure for administration of the diocese. On 13 January 1991, he opened the Fourth Diocesan Synod during a Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral. It came 60 years after the Third Synod.

On 30 June 1992, Reiss launched Faith-In-Service, a diocesan capital and endowment fund campaign, to try 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 Ahr and later for Bishop Reiss, was named Auxiliary Bishop of Trenton. Ten years later, Bishop Kmiec was appointed Bishop of Nashville, Tennessee.

On 21 November 1995, John M. Smith was named Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton, to eventually succeed Reiss as bishop of the diocese. Smith, a native of the Newark Archdiocese and a former Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, at the time was Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida. On reaching the age of 75, Reiss submitted his letter of retirement to Pope John Paul II. The letter was accepted, effective July 1, 1997, and that day Smith became Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Trenton.

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."

Present Time

On June 4, 2010 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.

Bishop O'Connell has as his Episcopal Motto: "Ministrare non Ministrari" which means “To serve and not to be served”


When the Diocese of Trenton was established in 1881, Saint Mary Church was designated the cathedral, the Mother Church of the diocese and home to the cathedra, the chair of the bishop. Since then the cathedral has welcomed people from all walks of life into a community nourished by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and strengthened for the challenges of life.

The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, spiritual home for generations of Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, has stood as witness to God's love and the dedication of God's people since its inception. Even before there was a Diocese of Trenton, in 1865, Father Anthony Smith purchased the property and ground was broken for the foundation of St. Mary's Church on April 23, 1866. The parishioners themselves contributed much of the labor. It took almost five years to complete and on January 1, 1871, St. Mary's Church was dedicated.

The land on which the church was built has historic significance dating from the time of the American Revolution. A part of the Battle of Trenton was fought on this site and the Hessian Commander Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall was mortally wounded and died here on December 27, 1776. A historic marker on the façade of the cathedral rectory identifies the site.

When the Diocese of Trenton was established in 1881, Saint Mary's Church was designated the cathedral, the Mother Church of the diocese and home to the cathedra, the chair of the bishop. Since then the cathedral has welcomed people from all walks of life into a community nourished by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and strengthened for the challenges of life.

The diocese and Cathedral parish community faced its own devastating challenge when tragedy struck in 1956 and the first cathedral church was destroyed by fire, also taking the lives of the Very Reverend Monsignor Richard T. Crean, cathedral rector, and the Misses Mary Brennan and Mary Donnellan, cathedral housekeepers.

Through God's grace and the generosity of many people, a new cathedral church was built, and on the day of its dedication, March 14, 1959, Bishop George W. Ahr encouraged the parishioners, the people of the city of Trenton and visitors to find in the cathedral "an inexhaustible well-spring of divine grace and a fruitful source of spiritual blessing, strength and consolation. In very truth it will be a House of God and a Gate to Heaven."

Today, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., is the tenth bishop to preach and teach from the cathedra, and to gather together people from all corners of the diocese to worship in communion as the Family of God.

Bishops of the Diocese of Trenton

See footnote
  1. Michael J. O'Farrell (1881-1894); died
  2. James A. McFaul (1894-1917); died
  3. Thomas J. Walsh (1917-1928); appointed archbishop of Newark
  4. John J. McMahon (1928-1932); died
  5. Moses E. Kiley (1934-1940); appointed archbishop of Milwaukee
  6. William A. Griffin (1940-1950); died
  7. George W. Ahr (1950-1979); retired (apostolic administrator, 1979–80)
  8. John C. Reiss (1980-1997); retired and died in 2012
  9. John M. Smith (1997-2010); retired
  10. David M. O'Connell, C.M. (2010 to present)


High schools

*Operates independently with the concurrence of the Diocese.


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