I have often thought that I owe a debt to Katie’s Irish Catholic ancestors who helped populate our region north of Boston beginning around 1900. Now that I am reading Boston Catholics by historian Thomas H. O’Connor, however, I realize that my debt is far greater than I ever suspected. I have only read to 1900 so far, but here are some of the IOU’s I’ve rung up already.
- In Boston, as elsewhere, Catholics began as the enemy. The reasons, when not driven by blind prejudice, were political and military. In simple terms, France and England vied for North America. So for the largely English (Protestant) population of pre-Revolutionary Boston, the threat came from the French (Catholic) population of Canada to the north. The French and Indian Wars lasted a long time (1689–1763), so several generations of Bostonians grew up with the equation French = Catholic = bad. It took courage to be a Catholic in Boston.
- Here’s just one example from O’Connor, which sounds almost comical now but clearly wasn’t at the time: “During the winter of 1731–32, Boston was thrown into a minor panic when the rumor circulated that there was a Roman Catholic priest in town who was planning to celebrate a Mass for the local Papists on March 17—it being ‘what they call St. Patrick’s Day.’ Governor Jonathan Belcher immediately prepared to put into force the Massachusetts anti-priest law, and issued a warrant to the sheriff, the deputy sheriff, and the constables of Suffolk County authorizing them to break into dwelling houses, shops, or any other ‘Places or apartments’ in tracking down and apprehending any ‘Popish Priest and other Papists of his Faith and Perswasion.’”
- The Revolution helped turn this around. The rebelling colonies tried to forge alliances with their old enemy, Catholic Canada, because Catholic Canada was now the enemy of their enemy, the British!
- The first public Mass in Boston was celebrated in 1788, or about 160 years after Englishmen, led by John Winthrop, began settling the peninsula.
- Boston’s first priest arrived two years later, in 1790. That priest, Father Rousselet, and the next two Boston priests of significance, Fathers Cheverus and Matignon, were all French, trained in French seminaries.
- Those early priests covered a lot of territory, as the Boston diocese comprised all six New England states, and there are accounts of several priestly visits to Indian communities in eastern Maine that had been originally converted by Jesuit missionaries from France and had no priests of their own. All visits were by horse-drawn coach, of course; the Maine Turnpike was still far in the future.
- The second bishop of Boston, following Cheverus, was Benedict Joseph Fenwick, a native-born American who began his clerical career in Baltimore. In Peabody, next door to Beverly, the Catholic high school, Bishop Fenwick, is named for him. Fenwick came to Boston and was consecrated bishop in 1825, about the time the first, smallest wave of Irish immigration was taking hold. The English government, deep in debt following its long war against Napoleon as well as the War of 1812, had put a financial stranglehold on Irish landowners, and many were forced by economic circumstances to emigrate.
- This first wave of Irish Catholics in Boston was not warmly welcomed. O’Connor cites many outbreaks of violence against them in the 1820s and 1830s, some better known than others. There were: bands of marauding youths breaking windows and even destroying whole houses in the Irish-Catholic sections of the city near the waterfront in the summer of 1825; the notrious Ursuline convent fire of August 1834, set ablaze by an anti-Catholic mob although nuns and their young female charges were known to be inside (they all escaped, but no damages were ever paid); and the Broad Street Riot of June 1837, when a company of Yankee firemen clashed with a Catholic funeral procession, and the entire city almost was consumed in violence before the state militia restored order.
- Famous New Englanders like Samuel F. B. Morse, of code fame, and the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, actively stirred up hatred against Irish Catholics with so-called nativist publications and sermons.
- Meanwhile, following the lead of Bishops Fenwick and Fitzgerald, his successor, Boston Catholics founded such institutions as The Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper still in publication today, and both the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester) and Boston College, all by the time of the Civil War.
- The potato blight that began in 1845-1846 dramatically swelled the Irish influx to Boston. Previously, about five thousand Irish had arrived in Boston each year. In 1847, thirty-seven thousand arrived, and that was just the beginning. These immigrants did not find pleasant accommodations in Boston. They lived in hovels and tenements along the Boston waterfront, those that had homes at all, and they accepted the most menial and degrading labor available, when it was available. Meanwhile, Bishop Fitzpatrick built churches and laid all the plans for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Completed after Fitzpatrick’s death, the cathedral is almost as large as Notre Dame in Paris.
- The Know-Nothings of 1854 were a mercifully short-lived but nonetheless vicious national outbreak of Catholic hating. You can Google them.
- James Augustine Healy, a priest of African-American heritage (his mother was a slave), became first chancellor of Boston in 1855. In 1875, he would become bishop of Portland, Maine, the first African American bishop in the history of the Church.
- The Revolution had changed native Bostonians’ attitudes toward Catholics, then mostly French. The Civil War helped do the same for Boston and its Irish. Like the “Glory regiment,” which had demonstrated the courage and loyalty of black Americans in the Union Army, the Massachusetts Ninth, an all-Irish volunteer regiment, proved that Irish Catholics could be good Americans too.
- Another mark of Irish acceptance in Boston: Bishop John Fitzpatrick was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard College in 1861.
- Archbishop John Joseph Williams, consecrated 1866, looms over the final decades of the 19th century in Catholic Boston. During this period, an entirely different wave of immigration upset the delicate social balance achieved by Protestant Boston and its Irish newcomers. Now, the influx was from southern and eastern Europe, including many Jews of course, but also including large numbers of Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian Catholics. These had to be assimilated not only into Boston proper, but into the Boston diocese, as each new ethnic group wanted its own churches and its own priests.
- Despite these pressures, this was the age of great advance in Catholic social institutions with the building of schools, orphanages, and three major Catholic hospitals. All were staffed by a huge new population of Catholic women religious, who outnumbered the total of priests, brothers, and seminarians in the archdiocese by two to one. The two largest communities were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (an important presence in our parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea) and the Sisters of St. Joseph.
- It was in the last two decades of the 19th century that a conflict arose that foreshadows much of the Catholic politics of our day: a basic tension between Americanists (who thought the American church and its bishops should have wide latitude to create a uniquely American brand of Catholicism) and Romanists (who wanted to adhere strictly to dictates of the Vatican).
I’ll close with a quote from O’Connor that seems to me one of the most cogent explanations why the Catholic faith argues for a Republican-style, non-interventionist government system:
It was the general belief of both priests and their congregations that such social problems as poverty, crime, homelessness, illegitimacy, and alcoholism were not the results of any particular defect of society. They were, instead, the inevitable consequences of either individual weakness or personal immorality, usually resulting from a lack of religious faith. The solution to such problems, therefore, lay in promoting a spirit of moral self-control and personal self-discipline on the part of the less fortunate, not in passing a series of laws or in creating a complex system of secular institutions.
Along these same lines, it was a traditional Catholic view that for the public sector to take over the dispensing of charity would be to deprive the ordinary Catholic of an important, if not essential, source of spiritual grace. The ability to gain salvation, according to Church doctrine, lay not only in faith but also in good works. For government agencies or public institutions to take over the care of the poor, the abandoned, the elderly, and the homeless would be to deprive individual Catholics of the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity and thereby gain grace.