In 1904, Saint Leonard’s parish welcomed Father Valerian Pianigiani. It was under Father Pianigiani’s tenure as Pastor that various Church groups still in formation today came to be, the most prevalent of these groups being the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Knights of Columbus. The Third Order is a group of lay men and women who wish to carry on the traditions of the Franciscans while living secular lives. The group counts among its most famous past members, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, and Christopher Columbus. By 1920, Saint Leonard’s chapter of the Third Order had over four thousand members.
The new century brought with it the idea of a parish school. Under the supervision of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters, Saint Anthony’s School became the first Italian-American school in the United States. First located on North Bennet Street, it was built to surpass the public schools in terms of quality of education in the city of Boston. Saint Anthony’s and the Franciscan Sisters opened their doors to Italian immigrant children on February 10, 1907 and it quickly became a North End icon and a symbol of the continuing relationship between the Franciscans and the Italian population. Expanded numerous times to accommodate growing enrollment, the school finally reached its boundaries at the North Bennet Street location and found a more suitable site on Prince Street. By the midway point of the 20th Century, Saint Anthony’s new home was the site of the former Paul Revere School, and served the community until its unfortunate and controversial closure in 1982.
The next Franciscan achievement in the city was the Saint Anthony Orphanage, founded to cope with the growing orphan population due in large part to the influenza epidemics of 1917- 1919. Built in Jamaica Plain thanks to the work of Saint Leonard’s parishioners and Pastor Father Antonio Sousa, the founder of the orphanage, it opened on February 10, 1921, fourteen years to the day that Saint Anthony’s School opened. In his interaction with Italian immigrants, Father Sousa had always made the plight of orphaned children in the community a central topic.
In its early years, the institution was home to young girls, however within a few years, boys were being admitted. Hundreds of Italian immigrant children called the orphanage home. Eventually overseen by the Archdiocese of Boston, it is today popularly known as the Italian Home for Children. Although no longer housing Italian immigrant children, in modern times children of various races and creeds are reaping the benefits of an institution that began in the heart of the North End community.
Saint Leonard’s Church in the 21st Century has seen a great revival under the leadership of Father Antonio Nardoianni. Like many of his predecessors, Franciscans mentioned in this historical overview, Father Antonio has etched his name within the heart of Saint Leonard’s history, as well as the North End community. It would be unfathomable to think where this parish would be without his guidance.
A church can sometimes be viewed simply as a physical structure, a building to openly express our religious views. But Saint Leonard’s is much more than this. It is the heart of our North End community, and It is our responsibility as current and past North End residents to ensure that this institution continues to prosper throughout future generations.
Having lived in the North End my entire life, Saint Leonard’s has always been a special place for me and my family. It was my honor to assist at mass as an altar server for Franciscan priests like Father Primo Piscitiello, Father Michael Nappo, Father Dismas Centrella, Father Richard Passeri, Father Ronald Siciliano, Father Berard Tufo, Father Claude Scrima, and many others.
Today, Saint Leonard’s evokes memories of my great-grandparents, Carmine and Assunta Guarino who were devoted parishioners since arriving in the United States of America from Montefalcione, Italy.
I am reminded of them both each time I enter Saint Leonard’s and glance at the central nave of the church. The cross that suspends over the altar was donated by my great-grandmother in memory of her husband. Just above the cross is a glorious fresco depicting the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, the “Assunzione di Maria” which is my great-grandmother’s namesake.
Although they have passed on, they are forever immortalized in my thoughts through these two images within Saint Leonard’s Church.
I am proud to say that Saint Leonard’s is an important component of the Guarino family. It has served as my families guiding light of spirituality, and I am confident it will continue to do so throughout the generations to come.
Donations toward the restoration of St. Leonard Church can be made online here or by sending checks to St. Leonard’s Restoration Fund, 320 Hanover St., Boston MA 02113. All donations are tax deductible and you will receive a receipt within 2 weeks of your donation. For gifts from donor-advised charitable accounts use “St. Leonard of Port Maurice” Tax ID 04-2108397 and designate Church Restoration Fund.
Please join the Franciscan Friars and parishioners on Sunday, December 17 at the 12 noon Mass when Cardinal Sean O’Malley will be present for the Blessing of the church and the consecration of the altar officially reopening Saint Leonard Church. Light refreshments will be served following the Mass and ceremony.