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“On a Goodly Square”: Sacred Heart Italian Mission to Boston’s North End

By Jessica Dello Russo

By the year 1870, a decade after Garibaldi’s conquest of the Two Sicilies and the year the young nation of Italy was at long last successful in the capture of Rome, several hundred families and individuals formally recognized by the United States as “Italian” could call Boston home. The city had no “Little Italy”, as so defined, but many in the community were employed in the mercantile trades, or (more rarely) as craftsmen and artists: a successful example of the last-named calling is the dance master and musician “Count” Lorenzo Papanti (1799 – 1873).

Although representing an older generation of European fortune-seekers in America, Papanti did have something in common with the Italian businessmen and laborers living in Boston at the start of the “Gilded Age”: many, likely the majority, were from one region of Italy, the province of Liguria, especially its port cities of Livorno (Leghorn), Genoa, and La Spezia, among the the busiest shipping centers in the Mediterranean. Liguria was also the birthplace to several leaders of Italy’s nineteenth-century nationalist movement, including Giuseppe Mazzini and Goffredo Mameli (who wrote the lyrics for Italy’s national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia”).

Garibaldi himself, from the neighboring city of Nice, came to Boston at one point in the early 1850s with a ship cargo of South American goods. The Ligurian economy was far more industrial and geared toward international trade than those of Italy’s southern kingdoms, which is why it made sense for Ligurian merchants to set up business outposts in American ports. Christopher Columbus might not have discovered Boston, but his Ligurian descendents are primarily responsible for introducing Italian culture into the North End. In North End speak, you might say pesto was served long before gravy.

Boston’s Ligurian community leaders appear on the whole to have been educated (typically multilingual), civic-minded, and financially self-sufficient. As members of an ethnic minority in New England’s largest city whose power bases had always been dominated by residents of Northern European descent, they interacted at first with the native population through business contacts. Those looking to settle permanently in the United States are reported to have assimilated in terms of language and politics (not so much in religion, since Boston already had a strong Catholic infrastructure in place). In doing so, they would obtain a point of entry into other professional fields like law and medicine. But like other Mediterranean ethnic groups—such as the Turks, Syrians, and Greeks—the Italians did not yet fit the mold of the “proper Bostonian”, unless, like Papanti, they could claim noble descent and provide social-climbing members of American society with the one thing they could not really buy any other way but through European family connections: a heraldic title. 

For all the economic opportunities and, for some, critical political amnesty that America could offer to the Italians living abroad, the rapid changes to their native land between 1848 and 1870 must have given the Boston Italians moments of real concern for their families and ancestral communities. As in any era of popular revolt, it was important to maintain an infrastructure of collective support as well as of self-identity, especially in public places suitable for women and children to frequent as well.

In Italian society, the local church fulfilled many aspects of this role. Since the late 1860s, the Jesuits at Saint Mary’s on Endicott Street had engaged Father Simone Dompieri, SJ to deliver sermons and pastoral care in Italian (Dompieri, a native of Trent, also administered to German-speaking Catholics at Holy Trinity parish in the South End). The Franciscan order followed suit in 1873 by erecting a church on Prince Street dedicated to the Ligurian Saint Leonard of Port Maurice, a Franciscan missionary and very new addition to the Catholic calendar, having been canonized just a few years before, in 1867. It was a sensible name in light of Saint Leonard’s ties to a Ligurian port and engagement in spiritual devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, two traditions that were strongly promoted by the then-reigning pontiff, Pius IX. Saint Leonard’s was rebuilt in its current form in 1892.

Tension soon developed among members of the Saint Leonard congregation, however, once the Italians began to suspect that the Franciscan friars in charge were misusing some of the funds their community had raised for the church. When questioned about these discrepancies, the Saint Leonard’s friars turned on the Italians with “humiliating verbal abuse” and other acts of discrimination. In time, more and more Italian congregants of Saint Leonard’s felt dissatisfied with the way the parish was being managed and somewhat offended that the Italian festivals and devotional practices were giving way far too often to the customs of Irish and American-born parishioners, who thought the personal piety of Italians, expressed with acts like penitential prostration before the altars and ex voto offerings to individual saints, had more to do with folk magic than Christianity. 

Finally, after about a decade of discontent for many Italians in the parish, in the early 1880s, one of the active fraternal organizations in the North End, the Societa’ Cattolica di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Society), whose membership was predominantly Genovese, took action to establish a church that would truly address the Italians’ spiritual needs in a way that did not make them feel like inferior human beings in their adopted city for reasons of language and ethnicity. On 27 April, 1884, the Saint Mark’s Society directors voted to purchase the unused Seamen’s Bethel at 12 North Square for $28,000.00. As Catholic laymen, the San Marco society members had every civil right to purchase the building in their collective name. Getting a priest to officiate at religious services in conformity with canon law was a whole other story.

Statue of Saint Mark the Evangelist in the atrium of the upper church.

The Archbishop of Boston, John Williams, the son of Irish immigrants, who had spent part of his childhood in the North End, was not sympathetic to the independent act of the Italians (that, in terms of how charities operated in Italy, was not at all unusual). He refused to assign a priest—Franciscan or otherwise—to the site. The Italians had to look elsewhere, for an intervention from the Pope in Rome, if it came to that. In the meantime, they used the meeting house on North Square for prayer meetings and Bible lectures by laymen.

Keeping within the lines of ordinary church participation by the laity, they managed to celebrate nearly the entire Catholic Mass without communion, recite the rosary, and sing vespers and other services. When it was strictly necessary to receive the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (at baptisms, weddings, and funerals), the Italians of Saint Mark’s (as they hoped the chapel would someday be called) attended Mass at one of Boston’s English-language parishes. But their own meetings attracted a sizable Italian-speaking crowd who did not lose hope that their Italian spiritual fathers would remember them and send them help from afar. They welcomed Italian priests visiting Boston, all the while holding out for a “real” priest someday from Italy, someone with an understanding of and respect for their native language and cultural beliefs. 

Eventually, some clerics in the Boston archdiocese realized that in keeping members of the Italian community adrift like this, the Church might lose them altogether to “heretical behavior” and the “schismatics”, in other words, to one of the Italian-language missions of Protestant sects like those of the Baptists on Hanover Street or the Methodists on North Square. It also emerged that the Italians had real grounds for complaint against “that scoundrel, Father Bonifacio Bragantini” of Saint Leonard’s, who had originally supported the fundraising for an Italian mission, but then refused to be held financially accountable for its realization. 

The compromise reached on the issue after years of suspense and deliberations from the Propaganda Fidei Congregation in Rome was the establishment of a Missionary Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the care of a new order of Italian priests, so new that it had yet to be named, though the order would be called in time the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, or the Scalabrini Order, after its founder, Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, Bishop of Piacenza, a city in the Emilia province of Italy, near Milan. The Scalabrinians saw their mission as a timely one to “maintain Catholic faith and practice among Italian emigrants in the New World.” The Boston outpost was one of their first placements in the United States, and after two years of preparations beginning in 1888 (with pushback from Archbishop Williams, who at first would not hear of the Seamen’s Bethel becoming a real Catholic congregation), the formal consecration of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on North Square was made by one of Bishop Scalabrini’s most trusted collaborators, Fr. Francesco Zaboglio, C.S., on the date of the solemnity of Pentecost, 25 May 1890. 

Bronze plaque on the Sacred Heart Church facade by Richard Aliberti (1995) dedicated to the mission of Saint Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, founder of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, or Scalabrini Order.

In Sacred Heart’s early years, the church’s exterior looked very much the same as before. It would have appeared equally sparse on the inside: many of the original Bethel furnishings had already been removed for use by other Protestant churches, such as the pews, pulpit, and clock mounted on the front wall of the organ loft. A large painting of a ship delivered from stormy seas by the Angel of Mercy with a golden anchor above the vessel in the role of the Christian cross, long on display behind Fr. Taylor’s pulpit, also seems to have left the premises (I would dearly love to know where it went, and see it as it was described in several passages of a recent biographical study of Fr. Taylor by the Rev. William H. Armstrong.) Around eight hundred people had been able to fit into the bethel: now that many, and even more, tried to attend the Sacred Heart Masses, with the overflow gathering outside in North Square. Even Archbishop Williams had to finally give in and agree for the bethel to be used as the church because no other space in the neighborhood could safely accommodate that many worshippers at one time.

Outside of the scheduled Masses, Sacred Heart had a lively stream of social activity from the earliest years of its foundation. The church groups and events had religious titles, but in practice allowed for different members of the parish—married women, young girls, young men, and children, to meet, socialize, study languages and other subjects, and perform charitable works in a safe setting outside of the home and workplace. There were not many acceptable Italian-run alternatives, and the need was overwhelming to assist thousands of new members of the Italian community arriving in Boston each year. The overwhelming majority of the new arrivals were escaping the economically-depressed southern regions of Italy, and had received little formal education or vocational training to prepare them for tenable careers in the United States. The cultural and economic divides between the north and south of Italy were so deep and sustained that American customs officials used “northern Italian” on alien registries as its own category of geographical origin to designate the “noble Italians of Giuseppe Mazzini” as distinct from the “paupers” of Italy’s south.

In a sense, the original Sacred Heart mission in Boston was a labor of love and charity from Italy’s north to its south. The church is decorated throughout with donor’s inscriptions naming the many charitable groups active by 1900, including the Christian Mothers’ Society, the Society of Saint Jude, the Society of Saint Rita, the Guild of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the Catholic Associations of Mutual Aid. These “beautiful enterprises” were only possible through strong community participation in the life of the parish. Some of the groups had over a thousand active members. Most reflected international Catholic movements of the time, with a few specifically Italian missions.

The social fabric of Sacred Heart Church also benefited considerably from a pre-existing Catholic mission just up the street on the site of the Moon Street Free Church, one of the North End’s earliest Catholic institutions (administered for a time by the future Archbishop Williams). Following the parish’s merger with the new Saint Stephen’s Church on Hanover Street (with its title transferred to the Portuguese chapel at the corner of Hanover and North Bennett Streets, formerly used by the Baptists), the Moon Street buildings were used for a school staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame (and later by the Sisters of Saint Joseph). In 1893, this institution became the parochial school of Saint John’s. Since the language of instruction at the school was English, Sacred Heart also ran for a time, beginning around 1900, an Italian-language school and youth center, the Scuola Italiana di San Carlo Borromeo. In addition, the parish organized catechism classes, a sewing (or “industrial”) school (helping women and children find work), and, in time, concerts, dances, sports teams, and, well, apparently a bar, perhaps for family events like baptisms and weddings. 

The San Marco society even leased out space to the Irish priests for the English-language church programs of Saint Stephen’s and Saint John’s. The Italians did not trust the local Irish-run church hierarchy, but appreciated the good that individual Irish priests were doing in the areas of education and advocacy for immigrants and other socially marginalized groups. The leaders of Sacred Heart did not seem as willing to collaborate with Italian-language Protestant missions making inroads into the North End with similar pledges of assistance. Finally, the parish’s Italian-speaking Scalabrini priests were regularly called elsewhere, especially to the docks when the transatlantic passenger ships were disembarking, to intervene and try to prevent Italians from being sent back because of some miscommunication or irregularity with their papers: sometimes on-the-spot marriages had to be performed to clinch the deal. 

In its role as Boston’s Italian church, Sacred Heart also collaborated with various fraternal associations, typically named for the patron saint of a town in Italy from which most of the society member’s had come. Among the earliest groups affiliated with the church were the Society of St. Anthony of Lapio (1893), and the Society of St. Michael the Archangel from Chiusano di San Domenico (1892). In 1915, the Scalabrini built a sanctuary to the Madonna di Montevergine, who was greatly venerated by those in the parish originating from the province of Avellino.

The societies would stage public festivals with lights, banners, band music, and singing outside of the church in North Square. These annual festivals were much anticipated: they also brought Italians back to the North End who had left for other areas of New England. On a regular basis, the Masses were frequented by Italians living in communities outside of Boston: this, in fact, was one of the key elements in the development of the North End as a “Little Italy”, the cultural hub of Italians from all over Eastern Massachusetts and beyond.

Depending on the staff available at any one time, the Scalabrini also expanded their reach beyond Boston proper. An example of this would be Fr. Nazareno Properzi, C.S., a newly ordained 24-year-old missionary just off the boat from Italy, who went around Somerville in 1914 to perform door-to-door confessions in Italian. A downside to the mission, however, was that a priest’s assignment to Sacred Heart was often temporary: most had to move on as the Italian population spread into other parts of the United States.

Program for the Feast of St. Michael Archangel on North Square in the early twentieth century (Author collection).

In 1886, while the future Sacred Heart was still an Italian clubhouse awaiting ecclesiastical approval, its Italian occupants had surmounted the top of the square bethel tower with a gilded cross. They next attached some relief plaques with images of saints on the facade. In the following decades, enough funds were raised by parish members to make significant structural changes. In the early 1900s, under the direction of Fr. Francesco Beccherini, CS, the building’s capacity was extended to the southeast, the seating was redone, and the brick facade was reworked to look less like a New England meeting house and more like an Italian church (though it seems never to have been painted or stuccoed over, perhaps in consideration of maintaining the historic New England appearance of the square). The dedication of the new facade (by the architect John Lavalle, who also designed the Wonderland amusement park on Revere Beach) was held on 26 November 1911.

The building’s capacity was increased to over a thousand, supposedly doubling what it had originally held when first built in 1833. Even so, it was necessary to schedule multiple Masses on Sundays in both the upper and lower churches. Funding stopped just short of adding a Romanesque-style bell tower to the back of the church: the parish thought it more important to completely pay off the building mortgage, which the Scalabrini priests happily burned around 1920. (Later, a change of cast bells was mounted in the attic of the steeple base in the mid-1920s, each one dedicated to a particular saint).

A large donor’s plaque in the foyer of the main hall (upper church) lists not only the names of the church benefactors, but also the exact amount each one contributed to the campaign. It was a conspicuous testament of the lay investment in the institution from its beginnings. The Genovese church founders’ hopes for a honest, transparent administration of the community’s funds had been fulfilled.

The facade of Sacred Heart before alterations to the facade in the early twentieth century (photo courtesy of Vito Aluia).
Architect’s proposal for the facade of Sacred Heart Italian Church (image courtesy of Vito Aluia).
Donors’ plaque in the atrium of the upper church.

Also in the first decades of the twentieth century, under the direction of Fr. Vittorio Gregori, the interior halls were remodeled to more or less their current state. The bethel had had a New England meeting house design, with the additions of an organ loft and galleries for seating on a second floor, much like a nineteenth-century theater. The Italians of Sacred Heart had to alter the seating plan in order to insert a central processional aisle. In the large, arched windows of the main hall, they put in stained-glass figurative scenes of saints, almost as if to compensate for the lack of space to insert a transept and side chapels. The new altar area was painted and lit by a series of small, round windows in the form of a cross. The roof was redone and supported by rows of columns that were plastered and painted to resemble colored marble.

Among the artists working on Sacred Heart at the time was Donato Buongiorno (1865-1935), an immigrant from Solofra near Avellino, who had trained at the Fine Arts Academy and Naples. Buongiorno is increasingly regarded as an important artist in the mannerist tradition. He was commissioned to provide religious-themed artwork for a number of the churches for Italian congregations in Boston, specifically Sacred Heart, Saint Leonard’s and Saint Lazarus in East Boston. His artistic compositions for Sacred Heart included the Madonna di Montevergine Chapel and a painting of Saint Carlo Borromeo, the spiritual patron of the Scalabrini Order. 

An even more ambitious art installment for the church was awarded to Boston-born artist Benjamin E. Lanza (1906-1967), a local art prodigy whose seven-foot tall painting of the Virgin Mary on sailcloth had been published in local newspapers in 1926 when Lanza was only 19. After graduation from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Lanza was an instructor of art restoration for many years at the North Bennet Street Industrial School in the North End.

His original work included mural paintings for Sacred Heart, the First Parish Church in Charlestown, and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lowell. He is the creator of the marvelous “Saint John’s Angels” on the vaults of Sacred Heart’s upper church. Eyewitness accounts from the era testify that Lanza used eighth grade female students from Saint John’s School as the models for the pair of angels who accompany each apostle. These figures are individualistic and, without a doubt, Saint John’s would have been the closest place to find models of the right age (and likely free of charge).

Signature of artist Benjamin E. Lanza.
 Benjamin E. Lanza featured in The Catholic World in Pictures, 8 February 1926, p. 1.

The Scalabrini missionaries, Italian-born and educated and frequently very young, enthusiastically promoted the decoration of the church to celebrate, in 1913, twenty-five years of missionary work in the North End, knowing that the personal investment of Italians parishioners would perpetuate their loyalty to the institution. The building today is a visual “Who’s Who” of Boston Italian society of the early twentieth century (many families, like those of Cirace, Langone, Reppucci, and, well, mine, Dello Russo, are still in the North End after more than a century: A full list of names of contributors was published in “Venticinque anni di missione 1888-1913” [1913]). So many people wanted to contribute toward making the building a spiritual home for Italians in an often hostile Yankee world. The social importance of religion in Boston society provided this space in which the Italians could freely express their native culture and language—not in the schools, or squares and parks (except on feast days), or other public spaces.

As a result, the interior was populated by dozens—many dozens—of statues and images of saints, a heavenly army to help the Italians combat the various difficulties they were facing in the New World, such as endemic poverty, social exclusion, illness, and other limitations on their ability to thrive in the United States. Italian Catholics were encouraged to perform private acts of devotion in front of these statues, part of a global movement in Catholicism to strengthen the religious faith of people migrating from Europe to other continents.

From this perspective, the North End Italians were fortunate to have priests on hand who understood their religious customs (many of which the Irish and other Northern European Catholic populations viewed as excessive and superstitious). Italians in other parts of the United States did not have a physical church to administer to their spiritual needs, and had to resort to holy images and other talismans to bring a saint’s divine guidance into the workplace or domestic sphere. Children even tucked a saint’s medal in their pocket or wore it around their neck on a chain as they attended the local schools, something native Bostonians regarded as a sign of ignorance and superstition.

Meanwhile, the saints’ chapels at Sacred Heart burned brightly day and night with votive candles. It was not only the presence of these saints, but also of other people who believed in the saints, that could create a feeling of connectedness and belonging. The will of the people would have it so. 

Nearly two years ago, in 2018, Sacred Heart was abruptly closed for renovations (in compliance with a fire code violation), and never reopened. In the course of its nearly two centuries of existence as a hall of worship, the building was closed for a prolonged period one time before, from around 1879 when Protestants vacated the premises, to 1884, when the Italian Catholics moved in. Looking at the social fabric of today’s North End, does this “beautiful enterprise” as the Scalabrini put it, still have an Italian soul? If not, who will be next?

Bibliographical note: The Scalabrini, as a new religious order in 1887, kept exacting accounts of their missionary work abroad. Much of the archival documentation for Sacred Heart Church in the North End used in this article is held at the Center for Migration Studies in New York City. The sacramental registries of Sacred Heart Church (baptisms, marriages, etc.) are kept at the Saint Leonard’s Church office (and are also available online at the New England Historical Genealogical Society). Studies on the North End’s Italian communities include Prof. Augusto Ferraiuolo’s Religious Festive Practices in Boston’s North End (Albany, 2009), Alex Goldfeld’s The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood (2009), Steven Puleo’s The Boston Italians (2007), and, of course, my father, Dr. Nicholas Dello Russo’s column, “Life on the Corner,” for NorthEndWaterfront.com.

Author’s photo gallery of Sacred Heart Church (professional quality images are available from photographer Matt Conti).

Jessica Dello Russo is a native North Ender and daughter of regular NorthEndWaterfront.com 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.

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