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THE HISTORY OF SAINT LEONARD CHURCH: Part I, Boston “Welcomes” the Catholics

Around the midway point of the 19th Century, the city of Boston was developing into a thriving metropolis. Many of the landmarks we still hold dear today were being built across the city. Such institutions as the Boston Public Library, the oldest public library system in the country, the world-renowned Parker House Hotel and the Charles Street Jail, known to have housed among its inmates, Boston Mayoral legend James Michael Curley, and Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti.

During this time, Boston was growing in population as well. The “old” Boston families, better known as the Brahmin, were giving way to a large influx of immigrants from Western Europe. The long dominant Protestant stronghold was beginning to, reluctantly, relinquish its reign to Catholicism, as this was the overwhelming religion of these new immigrants. The city boasted the second largest population of Catholics in the United States, following only Baltimore, Maryland. Out of its approximately 748,000 citizens, 450,000 identified themselves as members of the Catholic faith. The first Catholics to come to the city were the Irish immigrants, then the French-Canadians followed by Italians, Polish and Portuguese.

The recorded history of Catholicism in the city dates to Reverend Claude Florent Bouchard de la Poterie, who was the first Catholic priest to be officially stationed in Boston. A French missionary, he celebrated the city’s first official Catholic Mass on November 2, 1788, and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross is named partly in his honor due to a piece of the true cross, which still resides in the Cathedral, having been among his possessions. At this time, the city was a breeding ground for Anti-Catholic sentiments, reaching its’ climax with the burning of a Charlestown convent by a Protestant mob on the evening of August 11, 1834.

The first Italian immigrants that settled in Boston came between 1867-70 and were mainly from Genoa and Tuscany. These immigrants settled along the various sections of the city’s North and West End neighborhoods. As more and more immigrants arrived, they began to define the areas of the neighborhood that they congregated. For example, the Avellinese, people from the province of Avellino near Naples, Italy, settled along the North End’s Endicott and Thacher Streets, as well as parts of Sheafe Street. The Sicilian’s in the community settled around the wharves, mainly along Fleet and North Streets, and in the West End.

From the decade between 1880-1890, the Italian population grew so rapidly that the immigrants began to occupy other sections of the city. By 1910, the Italian immigrant had invaded much of New England.

The always-growing Catholic presence in Boston was the result of this immigration.

Italians can take great pride in this growth of Catholicism in Boston aided by Italian priests, in particular the compassionate Franciscan Friars, many of whom devoted their entire lives and energy to revive the faith in the hearts of the population.

The most beautiful and impressive accomplishment of the Italians and Franciscans in Boston was the magnificent Church of Saint Leonard of Port Maurice and its parish school dedicated in honor of popular Franciscan Saint, Anthony of Padua.

Coming in Part II: The evolution of Saint Leonard Parish and the early Franciscans that nurtured a growing Italian community.

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.

7 Replies to “THE HISTORY OF SAINT LEONARD CHURCH: Part I, Boston “Welcomes” the Catholics

  1. Which was the “first” Italian Catholic Church in Boston, St. Leonard’s or Sacred Heart? The Seamen’s Bethel in North Square, built in 1833, was purchased by Italian immigrants and became Sacred Heart Italian Church in 1888. Construction on Saint Leonard’s didn’t begin until 1885. The basement opened to parishioners in 1891, 3 years after Sacred Heart, and was fully completed in 1899. So, it would seem that Sacred Heart was the first Italian church in Boston but Saint Leonard’s was the first church “built” by Italian immigrants. This is an important distinction. Sometimes I think Sacred Heart’s importance is over looked. Both are beautiful churches and I’m very happy we have them. Wonderful article. Looking forward to Part II.

  2. The Seamen’s Bethel was not an Italian church until 1888. St. Leonard’s broke ground in 1885……I’m thinking…..St. Leonard’s is the first Italian Church….construction completed or not. Just sayin’

    1. Sacred Heart began having services for Italians in 1888. Although St. Leonard broke ground in 1885, it didn’t open until 1891, 3 years later, and that was only the basement. The full church wasn’t completed until 1899. Sacred Heart was first.

    2. Having a good-natured, fun debate on this topic. Nothing serious. Just want to make sure that Sacred Heart Church and the Scalabrinian priests don’t get over looked in the history of Boston’s Catholic Italians. I was baptized at St. Leonard and made communion at Sacred Heart. 😉

  3. to anonymous: St Mary’s was a chapel. No date established, according to history.
    Chapel does not maketh a Church !

  4. As early as 1834 four lots on Pond(now EndicottSt.)were purchased as the site for first St.Mary’sChurch
    Christmas Day 1835 first Mass celebrated in downstairs
    Sunday May 22, 1836 Church completed and was dedicated to the service of God, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary . Rev. William Wiley was first pastor
    In 1847 the Fathers of the Society of Jesus took possession of St. Mary’s Parish Rev.John McElroy SJ first pastor
    In 1873 land adjoining first StMarys was purchased. Foundation 1874 Dec 16,1877 St MaryChurch solemnly dedicate IN 1977 ST.MARY CHURCH DEMOLISHED IN 1979 GROUND BROKE FOR CASA MARIA HOUSING

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