Life on the Corner: North Square, Part 4, The Maestro of North Square

This is Part 3 of a series on the history of North Square in Boston’s North End. Catch up on Part 1, Paul Revere & Banca ItalianaPart 2, The Italian Banks and Part 3, What News on the Rialto?

This postcard shows Sacred heart Church soon after it was purchased by the St. Mark’s Society. It was Rev. Edward Taylors Seamen’s Bethel since the 1830’s.

The first Italians began arriving in Boston around 1860 and were mainly from Northern Italy, especially the region around Genoa. The Genoise weren’t escaping poverty like the Southern Italians but were mostly businessmen looking for better opportunities in the New World. They first settled around North Bennet Street where there was a Portuguese Catholic church but as they prospered and their numbers increased they decided to build a church of their own. Land was purchased on Prince Street and in 1891 a downstairs church was opened. They named the church after an ascetic Franciscan priest, Saint Leonard, who came from the small town Porto Maurizio just north of Genoa along the Italian Riviera. Leonard was a great preacher and his sermons are still read.

By that time the flood of southern Italians was inundating the North End and St. Leonard’s had over 20,000 parishioners who would come from all over greater Boston for masses, weddings and baptisms. It was obvious that a new church was needed to accommodate these Southern Italians and their more exuberant liturgical customs so in the late 1880’s Fr. Taylor’s Seamen’s Bethel on the corner of North Square and Sun Court St. was purchased by the St. Mark’s Society. Local lore has it that the founder of the Pastene food company as one of the men who started the Sacred Heart Church.

The first post card shows the newly purchased Sacred Heart Church while it still had that unadorned, Protestant look. As the church population swelled with newly arriving immigrants the upstairs needed to be expanded and in the mid 1920’s a major renovation was begun. The exterior was changed to reflect the baroque French Second Empire style so familiar to them from their Southern Italian roots but what they did to the interior of the upstairs church is a fascinating and long forgotten story.

At least two of the frescoes depict infants. This is one of them. Visit the church and see if you can find the other one.
At least two of the frescoes depict infants. This is one of them. Visit the church and see if you can find the other one.

The downstairs church is similar to many other Italian churches; lots of statues and candles which are now sadly electrified. It is in the upstairs church where the North End Italians displayed their creativity and love of family. No expense was spared in decorating the upstairs church. A beautiful hand crafted marble altar was imported from Italy and an artist was hired to decorate the arched ceiling with frescoes, just like in any proper Italian church. The paintings depict Christ’s twelve apostles and the four evangelists, serious, foreboding men in flowing orthodox beards. At the feet of each apostle are two angels and this is the interesting story.

If this was a church in Italy the angels would be chubby putti , little naked boys with small wings. Here in Sacred Heart the angels look different and somehow ordinary, like the girls we would expect to see playing in North Square, and that’s exactly right because the artist who painted these frescoes used neighborhood girls as his models.

I wonder if mama approved of the off the shoulder look?

How fortunate we are that this maestro chose the quotidian instead of the baroque and left us with a wonderful memento of these North End girls born one hundred years ago. The girls appear to be young teenagers, perhaps eighth grade students from St. John’s School. At least two of the frescoes include infants, again using local children as models. The names of the artist and the models are long forgotten but the images remain frozen in time on the ceiling of Sacred Heart Church.

My maternal grandmother, nonna Colomba, told me this story many years ago. She was active in the parish and repaired many of the priest’s vestments because she knew how to sew and crochet using gold and silver metal thread. The girls and their parents would have been familiar to her from the neighborhood.

Two local men, Richard and Bennet Molinari, have taken it upon themselves to maintain Sacred Heart Church. The upstairs church is closed for much of the year but is open during the warm months. Please try to visit and observe these marvelous frescoes which are a unique part of North End History.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

7 Replies to “Life on the Corner: North Square, Part 4, The Maestro of North Square

  1. Wonderful history of a jewel box of a church. The Molinari brothers take loving care of it and are treasures themselves!

    1. You’re right, Laurie. There was no institution more important to the nascent Italian community in greater Boston than Sacred heart Church. A while ago there was some talk of selling the property to a developer which would have been a tragedy. The Molinari brothers have saved this very special church and its irreplaceable frescoes for all of us to enjoy.

  2. As a past teacher at St John School, I was very fortunate to attend First Friday Mass as well as other school Masses , such as the Crowning of Mary, Confirmation, and many graduations at Sacred Heart Church. Thank God for the Molinari brothers who incessantly give of their time to keep this church viable, despite the fact that the Archdiocese of Boston basically all but closed it.
    Nice article, Nick! Really enjoyed reading this , especially about the girls / Angels! Off shoulder, tsk, tsk!…

    1. Thanks Marge. I wish we knew the name of the artist who painted those frescoes and the girls who were his models. I don’t know of any other church that has similar paintings.
      We have a very special and unique history here in the North End. I hope we can preserve it.

  3. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience and for providing us an opportunity to learn more about the wonderful history of our neighborhood.
    Each weekday at 12:05 pm a Mass is celebrated in the lower church by the priests from St. Leonard’s. It is well attended, the sermons are refreshing and educational, and you can hear the children from St. Johns as they joyfully turn the street into a playground for their noon recess. It is a vibrant yet soothing view of life and a neighborhood in progress.

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