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.
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.
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.