By Jessica Dello Russo
In the final months before the community news project, www.northendwaterfront.com, enters a new phase as a treasure trove of archival material on the North End and Waterfront neighborhoods of Boston for many generations to come, I wanted to share with readers a delightfully unexpected follow-up to a series of articles I wrote for the website two years ago (part 1 and part 2). Under the heading “Brethren, Bethel, and Basilica,” the posts described historic houses of worship in and around North Square from the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, including many church buildings that no longer exist or have been dramatically altered, often for other uses (climb the stairs in the North End/Waterfront Health Center to get an idea).
The series’ focal point was the mission church of my childhood, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, at 12 North Square, which is still standing, though apparently, by order of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, public Masses and service programs like Alcoholic’s Anonymous ceased to be held in the building nearly two years ago, for reasons still unclear. I live a few blocks from North Square, and invariably, as I pass through, I see people in front of the church trying to figure out if it is open (obviously, I am omitting the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic from this observation, during which time all churches in the North End were closed).
To be honest, I don’t imagine everybody doing so is looking to attend Mass. A good part of the traffic flow through the square is from travelers on the Boston Freedom Trail, a self-guided itinerary that runs from the Boston Common to the Navy Yard and Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown. It criss-crosses the North End to include Paul Revere’s House, Saint Stephen’s Church, Old North, and, of course, the focal point of settlement in this area from the early 1630s, decades earlier than anything else on the neighborhood map, right at North Square.
In a dramatic remodeling in 2018, the square’s almost four hundred years of history (native settlement prior to that date is not conclusive, but being so close to the natural waterline, there was surely a human presence in the North End long before its European colonization) were memorialized by the installation of four sculpture groups in bronze by the art coop A+J+ Art and Design. It’s interesting that there are two features of the square worked into all the historical eras depicted in the public art display: the focus on commerce and community gatherings. It’s no wonder, then, that people take notice of the church building. It is what one would expect as the centerpiece to a historic square.
The real “Freedom Trail” church on the square, dating the Colonial era, is a plaque on the building next to the entrance to Mama Maria’s. The standing church on the eastern edge of the triangular-shaped square is a post-Colonial feature, but not that much later: it was under construction as the Boston Seamen’s Bethel by 1832, and preserves strong architectural features in the Federal style intermingled with an older Georgian-era meeting house building plan (the Baroque curves on and around the original belfry and statuary are later additions: the structure was seen as “old fashioned” even when new).
In fact, the facade of the building displays several plaques describing the building’s long service history and significance to the North End. These signs were there when I was a child, though at the time I was not particularly aware of what they said. The most official looking was a metal panel put up in the year of the USA’s bicentenary in 1976. At some point, I must have been outside waiting for my family at the end of Mass and killed time by reading what the sign said, just like the tourists always did. That is how I first made the connection between my parish church, Sacred Heart, and the Seamen’s Bethel of Fr. Edward Thompson Taylor.
One of the challenges I faced writing about Fr. Taylor and his mission for “Brethren, Bethel, and Basilica” touches upon a matter very much in discussion among historians today: namely, recognizing the formation of a historical narrative as a specific identity construction. In concrete terms, take the Boston Freedom Trail, set out in the 1950s during construction on the old double-decker highway to specifically mark surviving Colonial-era sites amidst mid-twentieth century urban terrain. It was impossible to arrange the path chronologically, but the focus was on reconstructing the “lost Boston” of Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.
The timing of the initiative coincided as well with the government-approved mass demolition of building blocks in several immigrant neighborhoods of Boston’s downtown. A good number of these, though by no means all, were material testimonies of Fr. Taylor’s Boston from the first half of the nineteenth century, before the start of the Civil War. To expedite urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, the physical remnants of this era were not seen as historically compelling to feature in tourist guides (today, the Harbor Walk and “Walk to the Sea” are good places to start learning about Boston’s maritime past, but are dedicated almost exclusively to the commercial aspects of sea trading).
Architecturally speaking, what we mostly see in the North End of today are Colonial building islands amidst a sea of tenements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The area’s current “Little Italy” identity is tied to the building history of the later era that warehoused cheap immigrant labor to Boston’s instustries and manufacturing plants.
Reflecting on what Boston as a city has chosen to preserve of its past helped me to understand why the Freedom Trail passes over Taylor’s bethel. The building is not a pristine survivor of an earlier age, but a well-used and much beloved community institution for nearly all of its one hundred and eighty-eight years: on this point, it’s safe to say that I’m an authority, since my own family has been involved in the life of the institution for a good part of this time (as members of the Saint Mark’s Society that bought the building from the Port Society in the early 1880s).
In a state of uncertainty over creating an accurate description of Taylor’s North End, I could not expect much help from Fr. Taylor himself. Taylor was more or less functionally illiterate—he found it very hard to read and write and had others do these tasks for him. He published no books, not even a collection of sermons, a literary genre which, believe it or not, was often read as self-improvement.
I ended up picking up my archaeology tools and hunting down old maps and images, building relics, and other evidence of the original structure in its current state. I knew from these that the nearly forty-year mission of Taylor from 1829 to 1868 was not only a community fixture, but also an international sensation: the upper hall of the bethel (the term used for the meeting places of a global mission to seamen) could fit over a thousand people, and the lower story was used for storerooms, shops, a free reading library, nautical classes, a children’s schoolroom, and a nineteenth-century precursor to Alcoholic’s Anonymous, though many community functions also spilled over into the Mariner’s House nearby (old-school North Enders might ask: where did they play Bingo? The answer is they didn’t, gaming was not allowed). But what was the secret of Bethel’s success among the North End community? Who could speak up for it, if not Taylor himself?
The question is largely resolved by a new collection of witness accounts to Taylor’s life compiled with remarkable precision and accuracy by the Rev. William H. Armstrong (Amazon, 2020). When Armstrong first alerted me to the publication of his book after reading my articles in www.northendwaterfront.com, I imagined it to be a fairly slender volume: after all, Taylor’s own paper trail is, well, paper-thin. I was amazed to receive, instead, a five-hundred page publication of source material, arranged chronologically. It not only provides insights into Taylor’s activity not included in most biographical accounts (though recent studies have made strides in filling the gap), but also illustrates the curious web of social connections between Bostonians in that time.
Taylor worked in a non-denominational capacity for the Port Society of Boston, and one issue underscored throughout the book is that the doctrinal issues dividing Boston’s Protestant congregations were largely put aside, exceptionally, in order for this community outreach to work. In a brief, but eloquent introduction, Armstrong points out that Taylor, an ordained Methodist minister, freely fraternized with, and publicly praised the Unitarians, perhaps out of moral principle, but also because they had deep pocketbooks and economic interests on Boston’s wharves.
Contrary to society practices of the time, the North Square Bethel congregation was an open one (not fee-based) and had no dress code or denominational affiliation aside from preaching a normative Christianity. The seating arrangement had sailors in the seats of privilege at front and center, people in city society and their guests in the side aisles, and others in the galleries. Unfortunately, one social norm that Taylor did not overturn, as he should have done, was the segregation of Blacks at the back of the church, a regulation over which other liberal Boston congregations had split apart. Armstrong makes clear that Taylor was no friend to abolitionists, whose combative approach he disliked (though his own children engaged publicly in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War: it is possible that Taylor even met John Brown while Brown was lodged with Taylor’s daughter, Mary Ellen Russell). Black attendees nonetheless could speak out during services like any worshipper could, and seem to have made up a notable part of the audience each Sunday.
Taylor welcomed a diverse population through his doors, including the despised Roman Catholics, “heathens” from foreign lands, sailors who were Arabs, and those who were Jews (to clarify, church attendance was a social occasion—in some ways, not so different from the talk show of today—and sailors of all denominations felt free to accompany comrades to these gatherings, especially since Taylor put on a good show and not only on the Bible). With almost no formal schooling, Taylor still found a way to speak to all nations, dropping Talmudic sayings into his sermons as well as observations on the geography and politics of foreign lands.
With the seamen came their families (if based locally) and other social connections: all in all, the Bethel reflected the Boston emerging in the industrial age: bustling with business, bulging with people, and building on an unprecedented scale to that time: very soon the city’s church steeples would no longer dominate the skyline, but, for now, they seemed to blend with the ship masts to make a forest of the Shawmut peninsula once more. Taylor chose not to hang a bell in his square tower (funds were not always available for a steeple, and, in fact, the large window made the space well suited for a sail loft and community attic), erecting, instead, a tall mast as a flagpole and hoisting the American flag or Bethel flag in blue as the call to prayer. It would have been visible to the ships entering Boston Harbor, and was, indeed, the safe harbor that many chose.
In putting this collection of reports on Taylor together, Armstrong realized that an important voice was missing: that of the sailor. Like Taylor, the bulk of his congregation left no account of the bethel. The lands people’s reports, many of which are by women, include multiple accounts by one time fellow North End minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as those by Nathaniel Bowditch, Charles Dickens, the Peabody sisters, and Horace Mann. But on the whole they remain literary sketches of the man and his singular approach to Christianity.
Nonetheless, there are glimpses of the North End community whom Taylor principally served. We learn that the high mortality rate for infants depressed him: he often buried several in one week. Liquor producers and distributors ran a smear campaign against his temperance crusade, aided and abetted by some local politicians. Many neighbors were lodged in makeshift rooming houses with few regulations for health and safety. People from the nicer parts of the city drove on the main streets to his meetings because they were afraid to be in the neighborhood.
But Taylor himself was proud of being a long time resident of the North End in a brick town house at the corner of North Square and Moon Street, where the wooden dwelling of another great North End minister, Cotton Mather, once stood (roughly the site of Crosstown Arts today: a nice detail is that some of the old oak from Mather’s building seems to have been reused for the beams in that which housed Taylor). One of his closest neighbors and a good friend was the Roman Catholic priest Fr. George Foxcroft Haskins, director of the House of the Angel Guardian (on the site of St. John’s School). When a visitor spoke disparagingly of the area because of its proximity to the “Black Sea” of grog shops and brothels, Taylor demanded that they go outside the bethel and take a look around at the houses of the good folk which surrounded the square, including neighbors who were Irish, Portuguese (a language Taylor had picked up while at sea), and Black. I am happy to report that thanks to Armstrong’s book, we have confirmation that already at that time the North Square resident pigeon flock was dive-bombing pedestrians! And, yes, Taylor had to deal with the rat problem as well.
I could continue to reveal the portrait of the neighborhood and an era which emerges from Armstrong’s book, but I strongly recommend you obtain a copy of it for yourself. It is a valuable source book for further work on a variety of historical and theological issues, and makes a compelling case to make Taylor’s legacy better known. A memorial plaque outside of his Bethel is clearly not sufficient: I feel that Taylor would prefer to see open doors.
The book, Father Taylor, Boston’s Sailor Preacher: As Seen and Heard by His Contemporaries, edited with introduction by William H. Armstrong (Amazon, 2020), in kindle or print, can be purchased here.
Jessica Dello Russo is a native North Ender and daughter of regular NorthEndWaterfront.com contributor Dr. Nicholas Dello Russo. She is also a graduate of the Vatican’s Institute for Archaeology.