Today’s picture shows the interior of St. Mary’s Church in 1958. It’s graduation day for the eighth grade and Fr. Boylan, the pastor, is handing out the diplomas.

Advertisement

This magnificent church was built by and for the Irish Immigrants who lived in the North End and even after the Irish left and were replaced by Italians, they remained loyal to St. Mary’s and the Jesuit priests who resided there. Irish parishioners would often return for Sunday Mass and take part in the many organizations sponsored by the church. In the middle of the last century, St. Mary’s Holy Name society had over 1800 members.

The beautiful main altar in the upstaters church was hand carved of Italian marble and all the statues were imported from Italy, but the interesting thing to note are the two statues at either side of the altar. The bald saint on the left is St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, and the one on the right is St. Francis Xavier, the most revered Jesuit saint. Francis was called the Apostle of the Indies because he was sent by Ignatius in 1541 to proselytize and convert the “heathens” in the Far East to Christianity. The present Pope is supposed to have taken his name, Francis, from St. Francis of Assisi, but I find that hard to believe. Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history and for him to assume the name of a poor Franciscan Friar over that of the greatest of all Jesuit saints is impossible to believe. If I ever meet Pope Francis I will ask him about this myself.

St. Francis Xavier

Every year from March 4th to the 12th St. Mary’s had a novena in honor of St. Francis Xavier called the Novena of Grace. This nine day event was enormously popular and, back in the 1940s and 50s, the priest who conducted the services was Fr. Francis Archdeacon, a resident of St. Mary’s rectory and a powerful preacher. There were two services held in the evening each day so working people could attend, a Mass at 5:20pm and a Benediction at 7:45pm. There would be standing room only in the downstairs church. Miss Patricia Hagen would play the organ and I still remember the words of those long ago novena songs. Since I was an altar boy at many of the services, I had an opportunity to listen to Fr. Archdeacon tell homilies about the life and preaching of St. Francis. One of the stories that stuck in mind was how while in Japan Francis baptized so many people, often times thousands a day, his assistant had to support his right arm while he poured the holy water onto the heads of the converts so exhausted was he from baptizing the multitudes. This seemed incongruous to me; if Francis did indeed baptize tens of thousands of Japanese, why aren’t there more Japanese Catholics today?

Many years later the answer appeared in a story I read about Every Waugh, the great British author and Catholic convert. Not only was Waugh a great writer, he was also a noted curmudgeon who liked to deflate the pretensions of the British aristocracy. Once, Waugh was seated at a dinner party next to a haughty, self-important woman whose husband was a Peer of the Realm. “Tell me,” the Duchess asked him, “how could a good Anglican boy like you become a Papist and, even worse, align yourself with those wicked Jesuits who wanted to restore the Roman faith to England and overthrow the King?” “Your Grace,” responded Waugh, “the Jesuits are a great teaching and missionary order and St. Francis Xavier was the greatest of all. In fact, he’s called the Apostle of the Indies”. Then the Duchess asked the very question that had troubled me all those years. “Why then, Mr. Waugh, if your St. Francis converted so many heathens, are there not more Oriental Roman Catholics?”

Waugh considered that question for a moment and told her the following story.

When Francis traveled to the Far East he first stopped in Goa, a Portuguese colony. Being Spanish, he was able to easily learn the language and spent several years restoring the faith to the Portuguese settlers and their servants. While there, he met a Japanese man named Anjiro who had spent time in prison for murder, but was now somehow free. Anjiro offered to bring Francis and three other Jesuits to Japan where he serve as their translator. The thought of converting Japan greatly appealed to Francis, and he traveled there with his small entourage in 1549. Francis struggled with learning the Japanese language, particularly the pronunciation which his Spanish tongue wouldn’t allow, so he asked Anjiro how to say “Jesus” in Japanese. Now whether out of malice or guileless innocence, Anjiro gave Francis the Japanese word that sounded the closest to Jesus. Francis would stand in front of a crowd of thousands of Japanese men with his right arm holding a crucifix in a stiff, upright position, and he would loudly proclaim the word given to him by Anjiro. The crowds went wild, yelling and cheering and rushed forward to have the magical water poured onto their heads. Francis was astonished but pleased at the faith of these Japanese, and how quickly and enthusiastically they wanted to be baptized.

Unfortunately, the word Anjiro gave Francis was Japanese for “penis” and the Japanese men clearly thought the holy water Francis poured onto their heads would not only save their souls, but restore their vigor and improve their sexual performance. They thought it was the sixteenth century equivalent of Viagra.

Well, upon hearing this the Duchess almost choked on her beef Wellington and Waugh smiled in having deflated the pretensions of such a foolish lady.

Our story ends with Francis leaving Japan, where he thought he had such great success, and going to China with its limitless potential converts. Unfortunately, Francis became ill and died on an island just off the coast within sight of the Chinese mainland. When subsequent Jesuit missionaries traveled to Japan to continue Francis’ work, they were met with hostility and many were martyred when they explained to Japanese men they were only allowed to be baptized once.

And as for Anjiro, his fate has been lost in the mists of history, but I suspect he went on to have a lucrative career selling magical holy water to Asian men who wanted to please their wives and concubines.

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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I was drawn to the title. At first I wondered whether a drug had been named after a saint. Then I wondered when would the feast be held.

    • Very funny, T.
      But what was Francis Xavier thinking? Why would tens of thousands of Japanese forsake their Shinto religion that was ingrained in their culture and convert to a foreign faith preached by an ascetic Spaniard dressed in black? I like Evelyn Waugh’s explanation and I was educated by Jesuits.

    • Endicott and Thatcher streets, Jack, but it was torn down and replaced with elderly housing. Maintenance costs were prohibitive.

  2. Thank you Nick for another great article. I look forward to your column.

    Incidentally, about 10 years ago, I attended a wake at the Alfred Thomas Funeral Home on Granite Ave., East Milton and who was I greeted by, but Chuckie, the European’s Maitre’d. We talk about old times at the European and he was as genial and well dressed as ever. The pastel tux and the ruffled dress shirt were replaced by appropriate funereal wear. He was always good to me and my posse when we came to the European.

Comments are closed.