A Discussion of Our Parish and the Catholic Church in this Area in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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(The following discussion of the history of our Parish and the Catholic Church in our area was composed by John Stewart in 1999.) 

St. John the Evangelist Parish has a long and successful history as a worship community. For over a century, priests, religious, and laity have assumed a major responsibility for making certain that the Catholic Church in our neighborhoods of Wellesley and Newton was a vibrant institution, providing both the physical setting and the spiritual environment we all need to become more fully Christian.

Although our parish was formally created just over 100 years ago with the appointment of the first pastor, the history of the Catholic Church in this area really began in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Men and women from Ireland first came to work in the mills and factories of Lower Falls and, later on, the railroad being constructed through Wellesley to connect Boston with other Massachusetts communities.

There were very few, if any, Catholics living in Wellesley or Newton until the time of the American Revolution. As Professor Thomas O’Connor points out in his highly acclaimed history of the Church in Boston, for 150 years or so after the arrival of the first European settlers in Massachusetts, there was little toleration for Catholics in Massachusetts. It was not until 1778, for example, that the first public Mass was celebrated in Boston, a funeral service for a French naval officer serving on a ship sent to help in the war for independence.

Newton, and to some extent Wellesley (then part of Needham), experienced a period of population growth and steady economic development in the years after the revolution. By 1800, there were enough Catholics living in New England to warrant the creation of a new diocese; so in 1808, Pope Pius VII appointed Jean de Cheverus the first bishop of Boston. It was not until the 1820s, however, that the Church in eastern Massachusetts began to grow seriously, with large numbers of people coming to Boston from Ireland, first because of the unfair British grain laws and then as a result of the blight on the potato crops.

By the time of the Civil War, there were about 50,000 Catholics in the greater Boston area and probably about 500 living in what is now the area of St. John’s parish. The nearest church was in Watertown, so on Sunday morning those who were not fortunate enough to own a horse and wagon made the long trek on foot down Washington Street to hear Mass at St. Patrick’s Church.

In 1865, Father McCarthy from St. Patrick’s began to say Mass once a month in a hall in Newton Upper Falls and soon was able to build a church for the people of Newton and Needham. In 1871, the first Catholic parish in Newton, St. Mary’s, was officially created. It included what now seems like a huge territory; but for the people of Lower Falls, who comprised about one-third of the parishioners, their walk each Sunday was shortened by about three miles each way!

The first Mass celebrated in Lower Falls in 1867 was in Boyden Hall (later named Freeman Hall and then Early Hall) in the building now occupied by the Lower Falls Wine Company. At the time, it was a celebrated site for theatrical performances and was owned by the Dolan family.

In 1873, thirty-five parishioners subscribed $2,550 to purchase the land on which our church was to be built. (A nineteenth century map notes that General George Washington “halted under a tree on this site” on his way to Boston in 1789.) The purchase of the two acres was reportedly done through a “straw” because of concern that there might be opposition to a Catholic church in this predominately Protestant neighborhood.

Although many people felt there would not be the funds to complete a building for many years, construction began almost immediately; and in May of 1875, the first Mass was celebrated in the basement of the partially completed church.

In 1881, the year Wellesley became independent of Needham, the upper church was completed. St. John’s Church is thus the oldest religious building in Wellesley, with the Unitarian complex next (1888), followed by St. Andrew’s Episcopal (1894).

St. John’s Parish would remain for another nine years a mission of St. Mary’s in Upper Falls, along with several churches in Newton. In 1890, a committee of three men–Daniel Warren, John Dolan and Patrick Ryan–met with Archbishop John Williams to ask if a separate parish could be created for the people of Newton Lower Falls and Wellesley. Their pleas were successful; in November of 1890, Rev. Patrick Callanan was sent to become the first pastor.

Father Callanan, like the eight pastors who have followed him, was an extraordinary priest, a very talented man and in so many ways the right kind of person for his era and the job to be done. At Boston College, he had been captain of the baseball team, prefect of the Sodality, president of the debating society, and a major in the military battalion. He was also an accomplished actor and a serious scholar. A colleague said of him at the fifteenth anniversary of his ordination, “All souls are priceless in his sight, and to help all to attain the end for which they were created is the one great object of his life and the motive power of his every act.”

Father Callanan was a very aggressive organizer; and the Archbishop at the time, John Williams, gave his pastors considerable independence. Thus, the first five years of St. John’s Parish were filled with amazing accomplishments. The modest church was completely overhauled and beautified, a rectory and stable were built, and the grounds were graded, all at a cost of $17,200, which was raised before construction was finished from a total congregation of about 300 families.

By the turn of the century, the diocese of Boston became one of the largest and most vigorous in the country. There had been a flurry of anti-Catholic sentiment throughout the country in the late 1880s, primarily aimed at the growing political strength of Irish and other immigrant groups in cities like Boston. But it was clear that the years of struggle for equal footing in American society were just about over.

St. John’s, like all parishes of the period, had a variety of organizations aimed at binding its members both spiritually and socially. For women, there was a very large Rosary Society and the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and for the men, a somewhat smaller Holy Name Society and, a bit later, a chapter of the Knights of Columbus (which had been founded in New Haven in 1882). Parishes throughout the Boston area often competed with one another in creating activities for their members–athletic teams, reading clubs, dramatic and musical productions, picnics, and fraternal organizations.

The education of children was a major effort right from the start; and in 1895, there were already 165 attending the weekly Sunday School. The Third Plenary Council of American Bishops had taken place in Baltimore in 1884; so by the 1890s, all children in all Catholic churches were being taught with the famous catechism questions (and answers) familiar to just everyone now over sixty: “Who made you?” “Who is God?” “Why did He make you?”

There have been, of course, many changes throughout the twentieth century in the devotional practices of Catholics. In 1900, for example, people did not actively participate in the Mass as we do today; and receiving communion was an occasional practice. One-hundred years ago, an average of 700 people attended Mass each Sunday at St. John’s, but only about half of them received communion as often as once a month.

While parishes in Boston and elsewhere in the diocese often struggled in the early decades of the twentieth century with the assimilation of the newer immigrants from Italy, Poland, Lithuania and other southern and eastern European nations, St. John’s remained essentially an Irish community.

In 1912, Father Callanan was transferred and was succeeded by Rev. Leo Knapp, who served as pastor for the next ten years. During his tenure, the rectory was remodeled, with the third floor added; and St. Paul’s was created as a mission. At Father Knapp’s departure in 1922, St. Paul’s became an independent parish.

Father McLeod, who had been a curate at St. John’s, succeeded Father Knapp as pastor but unfortunately died after serving only a year. He was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Flood. Father Flood presided over a period of tremendous growth in the parish during the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the houses in which we live today were built in this era, as Newton and Wellesley had become easily accessible to downtown Boston because of the railroad, good highways, and a growing network of trolley lines.

In this period between the two world wars, the social activities of Catholic parishes became even more organized and sophisticated. Theatrical performances of all kinds were extremely popular, from minstrel shows to serious plays and musicals, a tradition that has continued at St. John’s to this day. In recognition of the growing desire of parishioners for fulfillment of their community as well as spiritual needs, Father Flood arranged for the purchase of a 70,000-foot parcel that had been part of the Rice estate. The cost was $20,000; the building on the land served as the Parish “clubhouse” used for a variety of religious, educational, and social events.

While the parish grew during the 1920s and 1930s, devotional practices remained much as they had been for many years. In addition to Sunday Mass, parishioners regularly went to confession on Saturday night or on the Thursday evening before first Fridays. There were weekly Holy Hour devotions, special novenas and annual missions, led by visiting priests. These missions generally consisted of an opening service, one week of sermons and prayer for the women, another week for the men, and a concluding service for everyone.

St. John’s Parish played a central role in the lives of many families, despite the fact that there was no school. (Parish schools had become important vehicles in many communities for binding Catholics together.) Still, it was during this period just before World War II that some of the seeds of the “revolt” of the 1960s were probably sown–for example, the emphasis on obedience and docility, the absence of a productive and fulfilling role in parish life for numerous lay people, and the manner in which Cardinal O’Connell directed the affairs of the Archdiocese.

Rev. Henry Reardon came to St. John’s in 1938. During the depression years, the St. Vincent de Paul Society grew as the number of people in economic need soared.  Father Reardon died in 1943 and was succeeded by Rev. John Donegan, who had been pastor of St. Michael’s in Bedford. Father Donegan had been a pilot in World War I, and it was said often drove his car through the streets of the parish at high speeds. He presided over the parish in what was really the start of a long period of dramatic change, both locally and in the church generally.

The baby boom of the post-World War II era was a challenge. In 1948, a large benefit was held to raise funds for the construction of a new parish clubhouse. The committee included the pastor, the two curates – Father O’Brien and Father Kelly, William Hughes, Leon Kelley, Louis Marshall, Robert McCabe, George Connors, Harold Shea and John Corcoran. The new facility was to include at the start a gymnasium, bowling alleys, and reading rooms; with “the rest of the Parish Club House to follow in due time.” (Plans showed a 300-seat auditorium with a large stage and “dress rooms.”)

Father Donegan passed away in 1951 and was succeeded by Monsignor Louis Cunney. By this time the parish community numbered 760 families and a population of children growing by leaps and bounds each year. In 1964 the pastor decided a school was needed, so the funds that had been set aside for the clubhouse were used to construct a school and convent. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were invited to teach in the school and since that time have given the school a reputation as a place of academic excellence rooted in Catholic tradition.

During the last decade of Monsignor Cunney’s pastorship, the universal Church experienced an historic change. In 1958, Pope John XXIII succeeded Pope Pius XII. He almost immediately laid plans for the convening of an ecumenical council, the first since the Vatican Council of 1869 and the second since the Council of Trent in the 1500s.

The Second Vatican Council examined both the Church’s internal life and her relationship with the world. When the Council ended, the reforms and changes went far beyond what anyone had anticipated and called all of us to a new, shared responsibility in carrying out the mission of the Church. Few aspects of Church life were unaffected. On the level of the parish, these changes were most profoundly experienced in its worship and especially the celebration of the Eucharist. What had been a very passive experience now invited the congregation to be fully involved.  Most of the people of St. John’s adapted to these changes easily; but for some, it was a slow and reluctant process, and for others a series of irritations that even more was not quickly being done to make the liturgy more compatible with contemporary styles of music and prayer.

In 1971, Monsignor Cunney died. His successor could not have been a more perfect leader for the changing times. Father John Philbin had been deeply involved in the major transitions that were taking place in the Roxbury parishes, as growing numbers of African American and Hispanic families replaced those of Irish and other European backgrounds. His tenure at St. John’s of 22 years was extraordinary in the way he encouraged the parishioners to assume responsibility for the new ministries that were emerging in the Church. St. John’s became known throughout the diocese as a parish community that was enthusiastically engaged in the many works of the Church.

In 1993, it became time for Father Philbin to move on to another phase of his priesthood. He had accomplished so much! His successor, Reverend Thomas Powers, along with the hundreds of parishioners now actively involved in managing and carrying out the various activities of the parish, could look forward to the next chapter of being Church.

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