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?”
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.