Arts & Culture Commentaries Featured

“Brethren, Bethel, And Basilica” – North Square Worship Sites From 1649 to Today

By Jessica Dello Russo

North Square is undergoing a $2.5 million facelift – the first in many decades. It includes the installation in 2019 of public art by A+J Art+Design on the theme of the many historical periods through which the square has endured as open space. There will be tributes to Boston’s first colonists from England, the mariners who made landfall on the docks nearby, and immigrants populating the neighborhood over time, notably the Italians. This includes some of my own ancestors, who set up shop on the streets branching off from North Square, a space that by the end of the 19th century had become the heart of their “Little Italy” thanks to the conversion of the Seamen’s Bethel located on the square into an Italian Church in the late 1880s.

The Seamen’s Bethel in North Square. Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1918.

As a lifelong North Ender who acquired a love of digging in the mud for old stuff during child play in the area’s construction pits and decaying wharf piers, I can’t help but cast an archaeologist’s curious and critical eye over the square’s repaving by Boston’s Public Works Department, which, regrettably, does not seem to have included preventative archaeological soundings (well below what it is covered with now, not of Colonial date but rather a mid-20th century “approximation” of the square’s 19th-century appearance with the addition of marine bollards and chains).

Very recently, the City of Boston’s Archaeological Program was able to open new trenches next to the Pierce-Hitchborne House, just off the North Square, so our knowledge about the passage of people and things through this area from the 17th century to the present is greater than before, and will continue to grow as the results of this latest excavation go public.

Paul Revere’s House, in the same area at the southeastern corner of the square, has likewise proved a happy hunting grounds for Boston’s past, thanks to its acquisition and renovation of 5-6 Lathorp Place from 2007-2016. Only a small number of period artifacts currently are on display, however, and it would be good to create more exhibition space around the neighborhood, similar to the way hotels like the Marriott, InterContinental, Battery Wharf, and even some modern office buildings have museum-like displays in public areas. A larger display in one spot, even a vacant storefront, would be ideal, but these exhibit cases are a start.

In light of all the work recently completed or still in progress on North Square and environs, I thought it was a good time to explore the area with – who else? – members and friends of the North End Historical Society. My interest centered on structures on or near the square built by religious organizations. Above all, I focused on a building that, like the square itself, still exists, but with major structural transformations.

Like the square, it was familiar to me from my earliest childhood. I was in and out of it over fifty times a year because it was my parish church, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Other area kids attending St. John’s School next door visited the church more often, but my family’s connection to the church was multi-generational and intimate, especially when I was young and my grandfather was one of the church’s ushers during services along with other members of the St. Mark’s Society. After so much time spent there, continuing as a Mass-goer today, I thought I knew the building’s details by heart and could figure out its history and architecture thanks to my graduate training in Classical and Medieval archaeology at the Vatican. As things turned out, there were surprises in store for me on my home turf.

The designation of a “North End of the towne” appears in the 17th century, but a public “North Square” is obscured by property boundaries, so that the names of the men who staked out the street were occasionally used to mark the place in front of the church. On the 1722 Bonner plan of Boston, it is marked as “Clarke’s Square” (the proprietor of a nearby wharf); one side also bore the name “Montfort’s Corner”. Over time, as more streets were laid out and labeled, including Bell Alley (now Little Prince), Garden Court Street, and Sun and Moon Streets, the North Street intersection became more of a feature, complementing the area’s first building for community worship at the “top” of the square (on its northern side).

This was the Second Church of Boston, literally, just that, first erected in 1649 as the town’s second hall of worship. The building, the North End’s oldest “Old North”, was destroyed by fire in 1676, but rebuilt soon thereafter, still in the form of a wooden meetinghouse with a gambrel-style roof and steeple embedded in its façade. Only a plaque is seen at the site today, as the Second Church was demolished by British forces in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Etching of Old North Church by Annie Pratt, built in 1677 and destroyed in 1776. (Courtesy of Vito Aluia)

The “Old North” company re-grouped in 1779 in what was known as the “New Brick” Church on Hanover Street, site of the Seamen’s Hall today (more to the point, Galleria Umberto), run by a church organization that had split off from the “New North” in 1721 over a disagreement about a minister’s hiring. For the record, none of these congregations were connected with the Old North Church of today, which in Colonial time was the North End’s Anglican parish. The Puritan meetinghouses that survived the American Revolution, or were rebuilt soon thereafter, embraced Unitarianism early on, and stayed in business until the mid-19th century, when New North became St. Stephen’s (1862), and New Brick, the “Old Cockerel” became Methodist (1849), though not for long, as the church building itself was demolished during the widening of Hanover Street beginning in 1869.

An established Unitarian presence nonetheless remained in the neighborhood to the end of the 20th century. One of its settlement houses, the North End Union, only closed in 1995. The similarly-named North End Mission was run by Methodists, who, since 1796, also met in a church on Methodist Alley, today’s Hanover Avenue.

It should be stressed that, while New North is now the Roman Catholic church of St. Stephen’s, there were no Catholic churches in the North End or Masses permitted anywhere in Boston down to the end of the 18th century – though Quakers, Baptists, and other Protestant congregations had gotten a foothold in Boston after a royal edict of toleration in 1692. Popular conspiracy theories against Catholics led to their exclusion from many basic rights and decencies of local society.

Annual public mockery of “Papists” took place on Guy Fawkes’ Day (November 5) with a parade of a “Pope” in effigy through the streets of Boston. Two Popes, in fact, one from the North End and one from the old South End (part of the Financial District today), both of whose supporters would eventually come to blows in a street battle, each group trying to capture the other’s Pope. Thanks to George Washington, who saw Pope’s Day as “ridiculous and childish”, this dangerous game ended by his order at the time of his liberation of Boston in 1775. The condition of Boston’s Catholics slowly improved after this date from changes to the town’s demographics and economic environment.

Well into the next century, Boston’s diocese, established in 1808, was the smallest and weakest of the nine ecclesiastical territories in the United States, and area Catholics were still being denied some rights. These included burial in public cemeteries, which could elect not to accept Catholics, and access for priests to inmates in public facilities like hospitals and jails, to say nothing about the persistent denigration of the Catholic Church’s historical role in many New England school primers. At least by 1816, Boston’s first bishop, Jean-Louis Anne Madelain Lefebvre de Cheverus, could write that “Catholics, hitherto excluded from (public) office in the State of Massachusetts, are now eligible as well as Jews, Mohommedans (i.e. Muslims), etc.”

Suspicion of Catholic “subversiveness” would not wholly disappear, however, as wave after wave of immigrant arrivals to Boston, incorporated as a city in 1822, included large numbers of Roman Catholics. It was a poor, populous church that found strength in numbers since it had little else by way of property and many cultural barriers to overcome.

Settlement houses, like the North End Union and North End Mission, run by Protestant establishments, were collectively one form of civic response in the 19th century to poverty, disease, and other issues that left many on the margins of Boston society. The North End at that time still had many old buildings – and no need of a Freedom Trail to single them out. Many of us would be pleased to see and study these structures today, but, at the time, they must have seemed shabby and misshapen with additions stuck like barnacles onto the original one-two or three story structures, with the most squalid areas out of sight of the main streets on narrow alleys and other gaps between buildings.

Lots of recent arrivals to Boston came in and out of the North End looking for cheap housing to let or sublet, and any sort of paid work or other means of support. This traffic of desperation provided grog houses with drinkers at all hours of the day, and clientele for other establishments in this “Black Sea” vortex, including sex services. The City of Boston’s Archaeology Program has covered that aspect as well, in the course of a Big Dig excavation of a brothel on Endicott Street now below the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

The newcomers to the North End in the first part of the 19th century included large numbers of Catholics, predominately Irish, like the hierarchy of the Boston diocese itself. By the early 1840s, in addition to St. Mary’s on Endicott Street, set up by the second bishop of Boston Benedict Fenwick in 1836 (later a Jesuit church), a Catholic church was operating near North Square. This was the “Moon Street Free Church” dedicated to St. John the Baptist, given its proximity to the wharves. Serving a desperately poor congregation (the “free” aspect was that one did not need to be registered in the parish to receive Sacraments), the church, run by its pastor Fr. John B. McMahon out of the storefront of a tobacco warehouse measuring sixty by forty-two feet, must not have looked at all impressive on the outside. However, on the inside, it was furnished by charitable donations with an altar, an organ, choir galleries, and “sette-framed seats”.

Set up in an era of institutional reform, the parish also sponsored as an “answer to misguided (Protestant) philanthropy” the Home of the Angel Guardian for Wayward Boys, a Catholic boys’ orphanage set up in 1851 in Moon Street Court by Fr. George F. Haskins, a former Episcopal priest. In the care of an Irish lay couple, the boys lived and studied in the house and yard next to the church, around which were other businesses and dwellings. This included a very old townhouse at the corner of the square, for in centuries past, some wealthy and prominent Bostonian merchants and community leaders had called Moon Street home.

Photo courtesy of Vito Aluia.

One of the pastoral associates sent to work in this site was Boston’s first black priest Fr. James Augustine Healy, later Bishop of Portland, Maine. Due to ever-increasing demand, the Angel Guardian institute moved to larger quarters in Roxbury in 1870, and the Moon Street chapel’s English-speaking (largely Irish) congregation began frequenting Fr. Michael Moran’s new church of St. Stephen’s. This congregation had been created in 1862 in the New North church building, with the St. John’s title transferred in 1872 to a Portuguese Catholic Church set up in the former Baptist Bethel on North Bennet Street which, in turn, the Baptists had acquired from the Methodists. It was inaugurated in 1873 and standing until the early 20th century.

St. John the Baptist, nevertheless, is still connected to the Moon Street site today as the patron saint of the parish school. From a boys’ orphanage it went to being a girls’ school in the care of the Sisters of Notre Dame from 1872 to 1893, at which time it was opened up to all area children (the Portuguese church did not have its own school, and at least two other Catholic Churches had since then opened in the blocks around the school). The priests assigned to St. Stephen’s also retained their rectory at 2 North Square (where, in 1872, an Italian priest, Antonio Molinari, is in residence), a few doors down from a Protestant mission church, the Seamen’s Bethel, that two decades later would be consecrated to the Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart and St. John’s. Photo courtesy of Vito Aluia.

St. John’s School, rebuilt by Herman Drake in 1902 where it stands today, on the site of the old Moon Street Chapel, was described as “a fine brick building, comparable in size and appointments to the best public schools.” What is not so apparent is that while the structure takes over almost the entire block between Moon, Sun Court, Fleet, and North Streets, it is still smaller in size than before. At some point in the 20th century, a fourth floor characterized by tall, arched windows, was taken off the building, along with towers at its eastern and western corners. I was told by alumni of the school that it was done because it was not safe, but it is possible that the school did not need all that space in the face of declining enrollment in the mid-20th century, although in more recent times it certainly has, taking back areas that had been leased to organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Azione Cattolica, and, more recently, Head Start.

From the start, the school educated close to a thousand students, boys and girls being about equal in number. Its student body was at first predominately Irish, but Italian and Portuguese children also came from the nearby parishes of St. Leonard’s, St. John Baptist and – by 1890 – also the new mission church of Sacred Heart, the tumultuous and controversial foundation of which will be described in Part 2.

Jessica Dello Russo is a native North Ender and daughter of regular contributor Dr. Nicholas Dello Russo. A graduate of the Vatican’s Institute for Archaeology, she now directs an archaeological foundation in Boston, the International Catacomb Society.

8 Replies to ““Brethren, Bethel, And Basilica” – North Square Worship Sites From 1649 to Today

  1. Jessica, you have presented a beautifully written narrative that helped this native Bostonian to better understand the complex historical fabric of this old city. I can’t wait for the second installment. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Jessica great research story I was curious to know about The first Babtist Church which I attended and is now The North End Health Center It was a beautiful church

    1. Dear Corinne, there have been Baptists in the North End since the mid-17th century, and Stillman Street is named for a North End Baptist minister. According to Alex Goldfeld, president of the North End Historical Society, “The Baptist Bethel, located in the 1838 Universalist Church at 332 Hanover Street, closed in 1972 and was soon reopened as the North End Community Health Center.” I’d love to know what you remember of its interior – very different today – but it’s nice that some of the stained glass and other architectural details are on display in NEW/Heath (like stairwells) to reflect the building’s history. You’ll know exactly where they came from in the church!

  3. Thank you, Jessica. for sharing your meticulous research in an engagingly written article. Well done! Look forward to Part 2.

  4. Jessica, what an engaging read. It was a joy to take an armchair tour with such a superb guide. Thank you!

Comments are closed.