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Demolishing St. Mary’s Church

By Joe Sarno

St. Mary’s Church in the North End was a magnificent structure. Built in 1834, it was the second largest Catholic Church in the Boston Archdiocese, the largest being the Cathedral in the South End. It was run by the very learned Jesuit Fathers and Brothers. It lasted a mere 130 years.

If you lived on Endicott, Thacher, Cooper, North Margin, Stillman, North Washington or lower Salem Streets, this Church was the center of your cultural universe. Of course, there were many parishioners from other streets in the North End. There were quite a few from Charlestown and out of towners as well.

You were baptized there, received first communion there, got confirmed there, got married there if, of course, the bride was from this parish, and got your burial underway from this beautiful church.

On any given Sunday morning for the 9 o’clock mass there were cars parked in two rows in the center of North Washington Street from Stillman Street and well past Thacher Street.  These cars were in addition to the ones parked at the curb.  It left only one line of traffic in each direction on North Washington Street.

If you were a youngster and didn’t have to serve the 10 o’clock mass on a Sunday when the Montreal Canadiens were already in town to play the Bruins that evening at the Garden, you might get the chance to shake hands with Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion or Jean Beliveau.

On a very cold and damp Sunday morning in 1977, I came back to the neighborhood to visit my grandmother. Later that morning, I met my buddy Lenny by chance, I believe, at the corner of Endicott and Thatcher across from the Church. St. Mary’s Church was well into its demolition. What a sinking feeling! Without hardly a word we looked at each other and silently said, “Shall we have a look inside?”

St. Mary’s demolition

We went up the front steps very gingerly, being careful of all the debris in our path. The roof was entirely gone. Dozens of pigeons were frantically fluttering above in a desperate cacophony vying, I guess, for a safe niche in the Church. We turned and looked behind and above us and there was no choir balcony and no organ. Rubble everywhere. Where were the statues?

There was no Father Whelan inside, nor Father Bailey, nor Father Fair, nor Father Boylan, our Pastors. No Fathers Duffy, Archdeacon, O’Neil, Weeks (who Leo Cap called the Reverend Doctor Weeks because he looked so much like an English Minister) Bouvier, Ott, Valenti, and Donovan. No Brothers Freeman and Kilbain. No Mr. Bilodeau ready for the collections. No Mr. Cataldo, the head usher. No Pat Hagen, the organist. No Joe LaFauci live streaming Rigoletto into the church from his window across the street.

No more gawking at the imperious Cardinal Cushing descending the front steps in full red regalia after a Confirmation. He would be the closest we would ever get to rubbing elbows with Pius the XII or John the XXIII.

No more funerals for important people with cars wrapped around all four sides of the Church and funeral Directors like Joe Langone and Tony DiFronzo orchestrating the event like 3-star generals.

No more trudging through the snow to serve a weekday 6:30 mass, where as few as three elderly women would be praying for their families while Father Donovan would be demanding more wine in the chalice.

No more dances in Sodality, a room in the church basement that the Fathers set up for us teenagers to keep us off the streets and meet others of the opposite sex in a comfortable and wholesome setting. Yes, many of us young men met our girlfriends there.

What an empty feeling!

There would be no more frantic preparations by Brother Freeman to ready the Church for Christmas with dozens of poinsettia plants strategically placed throughout the upper and lower churches.

How about Easter weekend when all the purple vestments, curtains and decorations had to be turned into the purity of their white and green counterparts? Again, Brother Freeman would no longer be needed at these holiest of times.

Would our holidays be the same? Would Christmas Eve be the same? Throughout the North End our sainted grandmothers, mothers, aunts performed herculean tasks preparing multiple meals in so short a time. The fish were being cleaned, also the eels (my grandfather would be the only one to eat them). The raviolis were being stuffed, cut, sealed and placed to dry on sheets on beds. When did the women sleep? Better still, where did they sleep?

Easter weekend was also wonderful. At home, the same sainted grandmothers, mothers, and aunts were preparing another special meal with the addition of the once a year pizza chiena and a pyramid of struffoli. How good did we have it?

One Christmas Eve in 1955, I took my girlfriend by the hand and, along with other couples and friends, we walked down North Margin and turned the corner onto Thacher Street, while many parishioners converged from three other directions. In the foreground under a light snow, there stood St. Mary’s, radiant and brilliant, all lit up before us. Where was the picture postcard painter to capture this beautiful scene? Why weren’t the digital cameras invented?

Hey, was I hearing “Pater noster qui es in caelis sanctificetur” and “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam?”

Thank goodness reality had begun to set in.

But would you believe it, bizarre as it may seem, we began to hear organ music. Lenny and I looked at each other. We didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or fall to our knees. Where was it coming from? We collected ourselves and concluded that it had to be coming from an open window across the street. We headed back to the front steps and looked to the apartments. The windows were all closed. It was too cold out for them to be open. Again, the nervousness kicked back in. We left the Church rather quickly. Where in heaven’s name was the organ music coming from? It seemed to be coming from Lynn Street, a narrow street running alongside the Church from Thacher to Cooper and between Endicott and North Washington Streets.

Sure enough, there was a foot square vent on the wall and the music was coming out of it.  What a relief! Just to be sure, we went around the corner to North Washington Street in order to bring closure to this strange happening. Two doors down, there was a chapel. We peeked in. There were quite a few of parishioners inside and Pat Hagen was back at it, playing her beloved organ.

We still talk about this experience from time to time.

18 Replies to “Demolishing St. Mary’s Church

  1. Great article I’m sure my whole dad’s family was baptized, confirmation, etc,

    Charlie jr

  2. Wonderful article. It saddens me when I think about any church closing or demolition. I think about all the many souls who poured their heats out to God in those buildings and now their spiritual homes are gone. My parents were married in St. Stephens. I was baptized in St. Leonard. Made my communion and confirmation at Sacred Heart. But always went to confession at St. Mary’s because the priests didn’t know me. 😉

  3. just a sad situation when the church was demolished, it was sad time in the north end,,my parents were married at st Mary’s,, ,even though I attended st Anthony’s school and st Leonard’s was my parish I felt bad for the parish of saint Mary’s,,, in all honesty the only time I went to st Mary’s Church was if I had to go to a funeral mass or if someone was getting married,,but as a young teenager during saint Anthony’s feast ,,my friends and I would sit on the steps and watch the crowds and fling cece beans at people ,, it was always part of saint Anthony’s feast,, to me ,even though one thing had nothing to do with another,,but for the weekend of the feast that was my church,, and after the church was demolished. that little by little the north end was changing,,on a positive note at least they built the casa maria for the elderly there,that’s the only positive thing I guess,,,,it just wasn’t right for the people who’s church that they belonged to,,

    1. At a guess, I would go with the gutting of the West End reduced the number parishioners..

  4. I was and altar boy at St Marys . I knew every square inch of that church. I was at the last Midnight mass on Christmas eve . It was sad to know there would be no others . the neighborhood was changing and the property was but to a more useful purpose .elderly housing but the name was kept Casa Maria . Buildings come and go but memories are forever .

  5. Thanks for a trip done memory lane. I received my First Holy Communion and got married at St Mary’s.
    Was a member of Young girls sodality with Fr O;Neil who was on his first assignment as a priest at OUR church, and was married by Fr Weeks, both of who were mentors and friends. It was a sad time when it was demolished, and, had it existed it could have been a museum, it was soooo beautiful. Throughout all these years, I have not seen any church to compare with what we had.

  6. So so sad I lived in thacher court and my building faced st Mary’s I also was in the choir and an altar boy I would do sat masses with father Bailey and went too school at st Mary’s till the second grade year when they closed and seen it come down like the school I also had my First Communion there till this day I still can’t understand y they came down it will always be in my heart
    Rip st Mary’s school & church

  7. I’m new to the North End. Thanks for the history lessons. I grew up in Hyde Park, which was half Italian and half Irish. I’m glad that there is more of an effort to keep the North End the way it was as much as possible.(Re Starbuck’s)

  8. Great story, Buster, thanks for sharing it.
    I remember when our eighth grade nun, I think it was Sister Marie Bernadette, chose your sister to be May Queen and place the wreath of flowers on the head of Mary’s statue. Certainly the prettiest May Queen St. Mary’s ever had.
    Every grade from the school would process down Endicott St to the church singing hymns of praise. Traffic would stop and all the neighbors and friends would watch from the windows and sidewalks. I think I have a picture of you carrying one of the statues.

  9. Wow what a perfect Story of St Mary’s Church I live at Casa Maria and all the people here tell story’s about how they where married here We do have 2 Original Statues of The Madonna here and pictures of St Mary’s Church It was so onait like churches you would see in Italy I’ve always lived in north end end and remember going to St Mary’s church in awe of the beauty Of it! Well maybe we are blessed to be here

  10. Thank you Buster Sarno for the great memories. I still re-live them from time to time. I received the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation and Matrimony. I also remember your mom vividly.

  11. Thanks for the memories. St Mary’s was my wife’s parish and we were married there by Fr Archdeacon in 1951. Upon our return to the N. End in 1957, we were shocked to see that St Mary’s had been demolished. Like many of you, St Leonards was my parish, but St Mary’s will always live on in our memory. Her parents resided and lived the rest of their lives in Casa Maria . Sadly, many structures do not survive the times. Vince

  12. Does anyone know what happened to the painting over the old altar? I believe the painting of Christ crucified was produced by Henry Sargent in 1841. The Church gave Mr. Sargent a Lows, Ball & Co. silver pitcher to commemorate his work with the following inscription. “Presented to Henry Sargent Esq. Boston. By the pastor and congregation of St. Mary’s Church, Charlestown. As an expression of the grateful feelings for his splendid painting of Christ crucified.
    Dec. 1841”

    I would love to hear about or see this painting if it still exists. Does anyone know?

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