Metro

Church shares inspiration in 18th-century letters

The Archdiocese of Boston has opened an exhibit displaying handwritten letters from Boston’s first bishop, the Rev. John Cheverus.
Thomas Lester/Archdiocese of Boston
The Archdiocese of Boston has opened an exhibit displaying handwritten letters from Boston’s first bishop, the Rev. John Cheverus.

When Boston’s first Roman Catholic bishop, the Rev. John Cheverus arrived in Boston in 1796, New England’s scant population had no central place to worship. An estimated 1 percent of New Englanders were Catholic, and the country’s only archdiocese was in Baltimore, 400 miles away from Boston.

Cheverus, a 28-year-old priest who fled to England from his home in France during the French Revolution, traveled from Europe to New England with a mission — fill the spiritual hole facing a community with a long history of anti-Catholic sentiment, said Mary Ann McLaughlin, the director of spiritual life at the archdiocese.

“Immigrants came here looking for a better way of life, and they encountered all kinds of prejudices at the time,” she said. “Little by little, as we lived together with one another, it kind of gets torn down.”

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More than 200 years later, leaders at the Archdiocese of Boston have opened an exhibit displaying a series of letters between Cheverus and the Hanlys, a founding family of Maine’s Catholic community, whom Cheverus met on one of his mission trips. The display, which opened at the beginning of September at the Archdiocese Pastoral Center in Braintree, serves as a window into the lives of New England’s Catholics in the 18th and 19th century.

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“Those letters are his efforts as a person recognizing the family’s desire to continue living their faith as best they can,” McLaughlin said. “It just shows us how personal our relationship is as Catholics with the priests who serve us, the sisters who serve us, and the community that is invited into that.”

Before becoming Boston’s first bishop in 1808, Cheverus traveled through New England, visiting Catholic families scattered throughout the region without a religious community. When Cheverus first arrived, New England had one parish, located in Boston, according to James O’Toole, a history and religion professor at Boston College.

The Hanly family, who many historians say left Boston because of the anti-Catholic environment, settled in modern-day Bristol, Maine, formerly Bristol, Massachusetts. They met Cheverus on one of his first mission trips, the summer after his arrival in Boston, and regularly received handwritten letters from him about practicing Catholicism without a parish, said Thomas Lester, the archivist at the archdiocese.

Over the next two decades, Cheverus saw the Hanly family once or twice a year, and wrote to them in the interim. In his letters, he gave a series of instructions, including hymns to sing on specific days and preparations for holidays.

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“Every day, Say your prayers on your knees, morning & evening with attention & devotion,” read a letter from Cheverus dated Aug. 4, 1797.

“I’m just surprised by how detailed they were,” Lester said about the letters. “He really took the time and thought this out. When he’s traveling such a large area, to take the time to write those directions out to one specific family, that is quite amazing.”

O’Toole, who worked as the archdiocese’s archivist for several years in the 1970s and ‘80s, said Cheverus’s work was “keeping the church alive” and “sustaining a sense of community” at a time when there was none.

“It’s almost as if they [the Hanlys] had an ideal of how Catholic life was supposed to go,” O’Toole said. “They knew they didn’t have the structure in place for that so-called normal life, but they were trying to work towards it.”

Today, the Archdiocese of Boston encompasses more than 1.8 million people across eastern Massachusetts, and the parishes under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of Boston cover more than 144 communities with about 289 active parishes, Lester said.

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However, like Cheverus, Catholic leaders today struggle to find innovative ways to keep members active and involved, Lester said. Over the last 25 years, 113 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston have closed.

While the Catholic population numbers are strong, O’Toole said, the closing of parishes shows how active participation in religion is declining for many people.

The personal relationship Cheverus developed with the Hanly family can teach Catholic leaders how to continue cultivating a dedication to religion among their communities, he said.

“It suggests some things about how individual Catholics can sustain that religious identity even as the institution shrinks a bit,” he said. “People were able to do it before. People can do it again.”

Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.