Learn­ing from Bos­ton’s early Ir­ish Catholics

Boston Herald - - OPINION - Ray FLYNN Ray­mond L. Flynn is a for­mer mayor of Bos­ton and a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to the Vat­i­can.

It has been my ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up that peo­ple are more in­clined to sup­port the un­der­dog than the pow­er­ful. At least that’s how my neigh­bors and I al­ways felt. Catholic im­mi­grants faced dis­crim­i­na­tion and op­pres­sion when they ar­rived on these shores, es­pe­cially those from Ire­land. Un­for­tu­nately, af­ter great strug­gle, Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans have been re­luc­tant to re­mind fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of the re­li­gious and eco­nomic per­se­cu­tions they faced. Call it pride, I guess. I’d like to tell you a chap­ter in that his­tory that I never for­got, as crit­i­cal to­day as is was more than 150 years ago.

One day in De­cem­ber 1818, a crowd of 1,000 gath­ered at the Gra­nary Bury­ing Ground near the Bos­ton Com­mon. Pro­ceed­ing south, and then east, they cov­ered nearly two miles be­fore reach­ing their des­ti­na­tion in South Bos­ton, ar­riv­ing at a small piece of land pur­chased days be­fore by Bishop Jean Cheverus. They car­ried with them the re­mains of their beloved Fa­ther Fran­cis Matignon, who for 26 years helped es­tab­lish the Catholic com­mu­nity in Bos­ton, and it was here, at the first Catholic bury­ing ground in Bos­ton, that he would be laid to rest.

Fa­ther Matignon ar­rived in Bos­ton on Aug. 20, 1792, and found the small Catholic pop­u­la­tion there fight­ing amongst it­self over which of two pri­ests should lead them, and the non-Catholic pop­u­la­tion leery of their pres­ence. He healed the Catholic com­mu­nity, and saw them be­come ac­cepted mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. While the lo­cal sit­u­a­tion im­proved, Fa­ther Matignon’s re­spon­si­bil­ity as leader of the Bos­ton mis­sion ex­tended well beyond the city lim­its, en­com­pass­ing all Catholics in New Eng­land. Re­al­iz­ing the task was more than one priest could han­dle, he sought as­sis­tance by invit­ing a fel­low coun­try­man to join him, Fa­ther Jean Cheverus. Largely through their charitable works, the two pri­ests helped the Catholic pop­u­la­tion gain ac­cep­tance among their fel­low Bos­to­ni­ans.

As a sign of their grow­ing num­bers and stature, they con­structed the first Catholic church in New Eng­land, the Church of the Holy Cross, in 1803. Five years later, the Bos­ton mis­sion had grown sig­nif­i­cantly, and so Pope Pius VII el­e­vated it to the Dio­cese of Bos­ton, in­tend­ing to name Fa­ther Matignon its first bishop. He re­fused, cit­ing his age and ail­ments, rec­om­mend­ing Fa­ther Cheverus in­stead, and it was he who was or­dained as the first bishop of Bos­ton in 1810.

When Fa­ther Matignon died on Sept. 19, 1818, his funeral was held at the Church of the Holy Cross, and he was in­terred in the tomb of John Mag­ner, a prom­i­nent Ir­ish busi­ness­man, at the Gra­nary Bury­ing Ground. At the time Catholics were usu­ally buried in one of the three pub­lic burial grounds within the city lim­its, but Bishop Cheverus set about find­ing a rest­ing place more be­fit­ting for his dear friend and col­league. He suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the Bos­ton Board of Health for per­mis­sion to es­tab­lish a Catholic burial ground in the city and pur­chased land in South Bos­ton on Dec. 9, 1818, rein­ter­ring the re­mains Fa­ther Matignon there sev­eral days later.

The fol­low­ing year, con­struc­tion of a mor­tu­ary chapel over Fa­ther Matignon’s tomb com­menced in early May and was ded­i­cated on July 4, 1819. It is be­lieved to be the work of ar­chi­tect Charles Bullfinch, who de­signed the Mas­sachusetts State House and the Church of the Holy Cross, and com­pleted the U.S. Capi­tol build­ing. Both the chapel and ceme­tery were ded­i­cated to St. Au­gus­tine in honor of an Au­gus­tinian priest, Fa­ther Philip Lariscy, who raised funds to com­plete the project.

Orig­i­nally in­tended as a small mor­tu­ary chapel, it has grown dur­ing the past 200 years, re­flect­ing changes in the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood of South Bos­ton. In the decades fol­low­ing Fa­ther Matignon’s death, South Bos­ton saw an in­flux of Ir­ish Catholic im­mi­grants, of­ten set­tling there to work the fur­naces that fu­eled the lo­cal glass­work in­dus­try. Mass was held weekly at the chapel, but it would soon prove in­ad­e­quate for the grow­ing num­bers in at­ten­dance, prompt­ing Bishop Cheverus’ suc­ces­sor, Bishop Bene­dict Fen­wick, to ex­pand the chapel. Work in­cluded the ad­di­tions of a choir and sac­risty, and mount­ing the cover of Matignon’s tomb on a wall be­hind the al­tar, be­fore reded­i­cat­ing the chapel on Oct. 16, 1831. The chapel would be the sole place of wor­ship for South Bos­ton Catholics un­til the ded­i­ca­tion of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in 1845, and in the 1860s served as the home of St. Au­gus­tine parish when it was cre­ated, un­til the new parish church was con­structed.

The grave­stones have sto­ries to tell. De­spite the great progress made in the pre­vi­ous half-cen­tury, sev­eral cholera epi­demics through the mid-19th cen­tury re­vived an­tiCatholic sen­ti­ments. It was the cus­tom of the Ir­ish Catholics to process with the de­ceased from the funeral ser­vice to their fi­nal rest­ing place that raised ac­cu­sa­tions that by car­ry­ing the body through the streets they were spread­ing the dis­ease. Bishop Fen­wick urged lo­cal Catholics bury their dead in St. Au­gus­tine, away from the burial grounds in the city cen­ter, to ease the ten­sion.

Through­out its his­tory, the chapel and ceme­tery have gone through cy­cles of de­cay and re­pair, the lat­ter com­ing most of­ten dur­ing an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions. As we ap­proach yet an­other an­niver­sary, it is our mis­sion to break the cy­cle of de­cay and re­pair, and en­sure the site re­ceives reg­u­lar main­te­nance for years to come. We ap­peal for those in­ter­ested to join the newly formed Friends of St. Au­gus­tine Ceme­tery and make a small con­tri­bu­tion to help sus­tain this his­toric Catholic site in South Bos­ton. St. Au­gus­tine’s Chapel is a sym­bol of the op­pres­sion and dis­crim­i­na­tion Catholics still face, even if some pow­er­ful and well-con­nected don’t want to ad­mit it. It’s time we got back to sup­port­ing our own causes, our chil­dren’s schools, and our old and run-down churches are a good place to be­gin. Char­ity be­gins at home. Let’s get back to ba­sics.

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