The Roman Catholic Church in Medford.

by Louise F. Hunt.
[Read before the Medford Historical Society, November 18, 1912.]

I was asked by the Medford Historical Society to write this sketch, as our church in Medford is not recorded in their archives. I found the task of giving a correct statement hedged about with many difficulties, owing to the fact that in the earlier times but few records were kept, and the men and women who began the movement sixty-three years ago have passed away, but I have tried my best.

It will not be unprofitable to compare the numerical strength of the Catholics in the diocese at the time of the establishment of this parish with that at the present time. In 1856 the number of priests laboring in the diocese of Boston was sixty-five, forty-eight in the territory now included in said diocese, and seventeen in what are now the dioceses of Springfield and Fall River. There are now over six hundred priests laboring in this diocese, and four hundred and twenty-two in the dioceses of Springfield and Fall River, while the Catholic population of the archdiocese is nearly one million, and of the remainder of the State about five hundred thousand.

The awful famine which prevailed in Ireland about 1840 drove many of the inhabitants, with their families, to seek a living across the seas. A goodly number settled in Boston, and a few drifted to Medford in the ship-building industry. These stalwart pioneers had held tenaciously to the faith of their fathers, and had been going to Boston to worship in the Moon street church, to Charlestown, to South Boston, and then to North Cambridge, where the Rev. Manasses Doherty officiated in St. Peter's Church. [p. 2] But in 1849 they felt that they were numerous enough to call for the occasional visit of a priest to minister to them in Medford, so they chose a committee, who waited upon the selectmen of the town, stated their object, and asked that they be allowed the use of the Town Hall for the celebration of the Mass. At first some objection was made, but when the selectmen realized how much in earnest the petitioners were, they granted the request, only stipulating that the janitor's services should be paid for. Father Doherty of North Cambridge then came to Medford once a month to offer up the Mass in the Town Hall, first hearing confessions in the old Wade house on High street (where Small's block now stands), in a room occupied by Mr. Daniel Vaughan. Soon after, in 1852, as children came, the need was felt of a Sunday School to teach the catechism, and an appeal was made to the school board. The appeal was heard, and the room set aside for tramps in the basement of the High School building was appointed for the purpose. Here a class was organized by Father Doherty, the teachers being the men and women of the congregation.

All the territory north of Charlestown and Cambridge was then without the services of a priest, and on the Sundays between the monthly visits of Father Doherty the faithful trudged on foot to Charlestown and back, rather than to be without Mass, in that splendid zeal for the faith which is so admirable. A conveyance owned by Constable Butler of Malden made the trip on these Sundays between Malden and Charlestown, but the round fare was forty cents, a prohibitive amount for the greater number of the immigrant settlers, whose pay was small and whose hardships were many.

In one of these journeys they heard that a priest had newly arrived from the English mission. His name was Rev. John Ryan, formerly curate of the Catholic parish of Ashton-under-Lyne, near the city of Manchester. He was for the present the guest of Father Hamilton, pastor of St. Mary's, Charlestown. He had left his English mission [p. 3] to carry the comforts of religion to the Irish emigrants, thousands of whom had settled in America since the famine. Without delay the leading spirits of that stalwart generation in Medford and Malden met in council and decided to ask the Rt. Rev. Bishop Fitzpatrick to give them Father Ryan. They waited upon Father Hamilton to present their address to the Bishop, which he did, and the request was granted. Father Doherty discontinued his visits to Medford, and in November, 1854, Father Ryan received his appointment to the new parish. It included Malden, Medford, Melrose, South Reading (now Wakefield), Reading, Stoneham and Winchester. The first Mass was said in Greene's Hall, on the corner of Pleasant and Middlesex streets in Malden. It is estimated that more than two hundred Catholics were present on that occasion. Father Ryan called his people together and told them a building was needed at once for a church. It proved to be difficult to buy land. As Malden was more thickly settled than Medford, it was decided to find a site in or near Malden, and at last the lot in Medford near the Malden line, where the Malden convent now stands, was purchased. At about the same time the zealous Catholics of Medford bought a lot in the heart of that town, but it was found that the united strength of both towns was needed, and so that land was sold. An old building stood on the lot finally bought, and it was determined to fit it up as a place of worship, but the alterations were hardly begun when the owner of the land opposite decided to sell, and the parcel was bought where the Church of the Immaculate Conception now stands. The expense of this was great, but greater still was the problem of how and where to get the money to build a church. Yet out of their scanty means and poverty they found a way. A small brick edifice was soon constructed, the parishioners being the builders, and here, on Christmas morning, 1855, the faithful were assembled for the first Mass in the basement chapel of the unfinished church. Their devotion inspired them to [p. 4] make fitting preparations for the occasion. There were paper flowers on the altar, which several of the women had made for the day's ceremony. Evergreen and spruce trees, which the young men had cut down and drawn from the hill rising just above the church, reached from the floor to the ceiling and were banked on either side of, and behind, the altar. Father Ryan, having just returned from Reading, where he had celebrated Mass, found the faithful of Medford and Malden awaiting him. We may well imagine the joy of those loyal hearts when their first pastor, on that Christmas morning, offered the Holy Sacrifice for the first time, in their first church, for the consolation and the spiritual uplift of the small struggling community.

This was the earliest formal beginning of an organized Catholic society effected in this part of Middlesex County. This same structure is still in use, being a part of the large Church of the Immaculate Conception (then called St. Mary's) which you see today, standing as it does, together with the rectory, on the land provided by those first pioneers.

On April 20, 1877, that part of the town of Medford in which this edifice is located was annexed to the town of Maiden by an act of the State Legislature.

In 1873, March 3d, it was voted in town meeting in Medford that ‘the sum of $600.00 be appropriated for the Clock on the Catholic Church in Salem street, said clock to become the property of the Town, and the Society to keep the same in proper order and insured for the benefit of the Town.’

In 1863 Father Ryan died, borne down by the weight of his toil and labor. He was succeeded by the Rev. Thomas Scully, who had been an army chaplain, and while in the South with the Massachusetts soldiers was captured and confined in Libby Prison. This broke down his health, as it did that of so many others, causing him to resign from the army when he was freed. He was assigned to Medford and Malden, where he remained until 1867, then going to Cambridgeport. [p. 5]

Two brief terms of service of the Revs. John McShane and Michael Carroll were followed by the long and notable pastorate of the Rev. Thomas Gleeson, which extended over sixteen years.

Although the Church of St. Mary was in Medford, it was near the boundary of Malden, and was much better adapted to the wants of the Malden people than to those who lived near the center and on the other side of Medford. As the latter town increased in population and wealth, so did the Catholics increase, and they soon began to desire a church to themselves. Meetings were held, and it was decided either to construct or to buy a church building. Finally, on March 24, 1876, the Trinitarian Congregational Church on High street passed into their hands. It received the name of St. Joseph, and since that time the Medford Catholics have had their own place of worship, although in the dividing up of the town a good number of the inhabitants are still included in the parish of old St. Mary's.

Father Gleeson ministered to the wants of both parishes until 1883, when Medford became a separate parish, with its own pastor. The Rev. Richard Donnelly was sent as the first rector. Father Gleeson had greatly endeared himself to the Medford congregation, and deep was the sorrow that was felt when he bade them good-bye. There was not a dry eye in the church, strong men as well as the women weeping with regret.

Father Donnelly succeeded well in his ministrations; his gentle and kindly ways were appreciated by all with whom he came in contact. He bought the residence of Mr. John Ayres (standing on the same site as the present rectory) for the priests' house. But unfortunately his health was delicate, and in 1886 he was called to his reward, most deeply lamented.

A year or so before he died, as his health began to fail most seriously, Archbishop Williams sent an assistant priest to aid him. This priest was the Rev. William H. O'Connell, who had just completed his theological course and had been ordained in Rome. Many of us can recall [p. 6] the presence of Father O'Connell at that time and must have followed his very remarkable career. He remained but a few months in Medford after Father Donnelly's death, and then was sent as an assistant to St. Joseph's Church in the West End of Boston. After a few years he was chosen to be the rector of the American College of Propaganda in Rome, of which he is an alumnus. While there he was appointed Bishop of Portland, Maine, from which place he was sent on a papal mission to Japan. After his return he was appointed coadjutor to Archbishop Williams of Boston, and at his death succeeded him in the Archbishopric. This office he still holds, with the unique distinction of having been recently raised to the Cardinalate, the first Cardinal ever appointed for New England. His Eminence dedicated our new Catholic Church in Medford last June, and he spoke from the altar most feelingly of his admiration for the saintly character of Father Donnelly, of the privilege it had been to be associated with him, and also most appreciatingly of the kindness he had received from both Catholics and Protestants during the short term of his ministry in Medford.

Father Donnelly was succeeded by the Rev. Michael Gilligan, who labored most earnestly among us for fourteen years. The old church on High street had become inadequate to the needs of the congregation and was falling into decay, so Father Gilligan determined to provide for a new building. He bought property on the river side of High street, belonging to the Gray estate and adjacent to the priests' house. Building was immediately begun, and foundations of the new church were laid. Many problems arose on account of the formation of the ground and the unexpected development of springs of water. But Father Gilligan and his undaunted parishioners were not to be discouraged. The stately and noble church which we now occupy arose, and the congregation moved into the chapel in the basement, finding it most commodious and cheerful. Indeed, it was so much so that Father [p. 7] Gilligan used to say, ‘We are so comfortable here I fear it will be difficult to finish the interior of the upper church.’ Alas! he did not live to see his great work completed, for in 1900 he passed away, after a long and painful illness.

In March, 1900, the Rev. Thomas L. Flanagan came to Medford from the parish of Stoneham, where he had been pastor for some years. He was an intimate friend of Father Gilligan, and he took up the work of completing the new church as Father Gilligan laid it down. And indeed, as we review the twelve years that he has been in Medford, the amount accomplished by his efforts, with the hearty co-operation of the parish, seems quite wonderful. The large debt which he found on the church has been paid off, a handsome and commodious rectory, which is a conspicuous ornament to High street, has been built and is free of debt.

Within the last eighteen months the interior of the upper church has been almost entirely completed. It is really beautiful in its harmony of decoration, its fine stained-glass windows, and in the lofty outlines of its architecture. It is also redolent of the spirit of selfsacrifice and generosity of the people, for the windows, the high altar and the altar to Our Blessed Lady, the pulpit, the candlesticks, the sanctuary lamp, the musical sanctuary chimes, the new golden chalice, the golden communion trays, the stations of the cross, are all donations, the most of them memorial gifts. And it was a happy day when His Eminence the Cardinal came out on Sunday, June 2, 1912, to dedicate the church and its contents to the worship of God.

There are now three priests to minister to the congregation, the Revs. William H. Flynn and Daniel F. Desmond, assisting Father Flanagan. Four successive Masses are celebrated every Sunday morning and are well attended by both men and women. There is a large Sunday School, which meets in the chapel on Sunday afternoons before Vespers, and there are always two, and generally [p. 8] three Masses said every morning in the week. The parishioners of St. Joseph's number two thousand five hundred, and they are all zealous in their faith and active in good works.

A few years ago the Catholics of West Medford, who were members of St. Joseph's Church, found they had so increased in number as to desire a congregation and Sunday School of their own. So Father Flanagan hired Holton Hall in West Medford for their use, and there served them. But they soon outgrew the hall, and land was bought and a beautiful little chapel was built, the name of St. Raphael being given to it, the Rev. Nathaniel Merritt having been sent to them as pastor. He has since been transferred to Winchester and the Rev. Jeremiah Lyons is now the rector. The congregation has grown from six hundred and fifty to about one thousand, and is most flourishing.

St. Joseph's Church has also contributed its share of parishioners to the new parish of St. Clement, beyond South Medford, which was set apart last spring by His Eminence and placed under the care of the Rev. Thomas McCarthy. It has a membership of two thousand nine hundred. The congregation worshipped all summer in a huge tent, but it is already in its new building, which has been dedicated since this paper was begun.

So the Catholic Church in Medford has increased greatly in numbers, and has adhered most firmly to the faith brought hither by the stalwart and loyal Irish immigrants so many years ago. The spirits of those faithful pioneers must look with loving pride and gratitude upon the result of their labors which have been so blessed of God.

The statistics from which I have compiled this paper were supplied to me by a sketch of the church in Malden, written by Rev. Neil Brennan, a memorandum given by Mr. McGillicuddy and brought to me kindly by Mr. Edward J. Gaffey, and papers kindly lent me by Mrs. M. F. Dwyer from those left by her late husband. The latter part is from my own recollections and dates verified by Rev. Thomas L. Flanagan.

L. F. H.

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