Sometimes called the Westminster Abbey of Boston’s first Catholics, St. Augustine Chapel is rich in tributes to their glories and struggles
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
THE PROCESSION trudged down Tremont Street that cold day with the disinterred body of the Rev. Francis Matignon, crossing a bridge out of the old town and climbing up a grassy hillside on what was then called Dorchester Neck.
It was there that Boston’s small but resilient flock of Catholics had paid $680 for a rocky patch of land where, on Dec. 21, 1818, they could finally bury their dead.
The consecration of a Catholic cemetery represented a remarkable step toward tolerance in a land where not long before, priests could be imprisoned or executed. So virulent was the hostility in Colonial Boston that each year on “Pope’s Day,” mobs of predominantly Protestant laborers burned effigies of the pontiff.
In that bucolic cemetery in what is now South Boston, the congregation built a compact, brick chapel. They called it St. Augustine, and it has endured for nearly two centuries. The oldest Catholic church still standing in Massachusetts, it will be the focus of an unfolding bicentennial celebration, starting next year.
That burst of attention may finally remove St. Augustine from the roster of historic landmarks that most Bostonians, even those who think they know the city and its heritage well, know nothing of — and walk right by.
Obscured by a grimy stone wall and the groan of the Number 10 bus, it survives largely in anonymity, remaining, as a newspaper writer noted 80 years ago, a “tiny chapel, long silenced by antiquity, nestle[d] in a grove of giant elm trees — seemingly disassociated from the 20th century confusion which surrounds it.”
Little, certainly, suggests the chapel’s grand, if hyperbolic, nickname — Boston’s Westminster Abbey. Two dozen of New England’s early priests, and at least one nun, lay buried beneath white marble slabs in the floor. St. Augustine commemorates a largely forgotten fight for religious tolerance that gave Catholicism its foothold in New England.
Even more, it remains a monument to Matignon, considered the founder of Boston’s Catholic church, whose bones lie at the heart of the chapel, buried beneath the uneven brick floor. It testifies to the indelible bond between Matignon and another missionary who fled the blood of the French Revolution and built an outpost for their faith here.
“This little chapel of St. Augustine stands as a modest witness to the great human friendship between two saintly souls that laid the foundation of the church in Boston,” said Monsignor M.J. Splaine at a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the church.
BOSTON DID NOT CELEBRATE its first public Mass until 1788.
Francis Matignon arrived four years later, on Aug. 20, 1792, to minister to the 100 Catholics scattered throughout New England and to Native Americans who had been converted by French missionaries.
Born in Paris in 1753, Matignon earned a doctorate at the College of Sorbonne and taught divinity. But he fled his native France as the revolution’s Reign of Terror took aim at the Catholic clergy.
Matignon was a “kind, gentle, personable man who made friends easily and listened to both sides of an issue,” wrote the late Boston College historian Thomas H. O’Connor, in his 1998 book “Boston Catholics.” Matignon helped heal a long-simmering rift between French and Irish Catholics, and ingratiated himself with the local Protestant establishment.
In 1796, he sent for his friend and former student, the Rev. Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus, who would become Boston’s first bishop. In a letter to Matignon in 1797, Cheverus described arriving on a missionary trip to Pleasant Point, Maine, and being greeted warmly by Native Americans who fired guns in a “hearty and moving welcome.”
Handwritten journals tallied the growth of their flock in baptisms and confirmations: 122 at “Indian Old Town, Penobscot;” Mary P. Smith and five other “coloured people” on the feast of Pentecost in 1814; and looping circuits of missionary trips stretching from Bristol, R.I., to Damariscotta, Maine.
At home in Boston, Matignon and Cheverus distinguished themselves with what was described as “Christ-like” devotion to the poor. They cared for the sick during yellow fever outbreaks, and Cheverus led a contingent of Catholic men to help rebuild Revolutionary fortifications at Dorchester Heights when Boston feared an attack during the War of 1812, O’Connor wrote in his book.
Their benevolence and civic spirit made an impression on the Protestant establishment. When Matignon and Cheverus raised money to build a Catholic Church on Franklin Street — a church that no longer exists — a handwritten ledger from 1802 shows that the first $100 donation came from “The Ex. President of the U.S. J. Adams.”
The French priests lived and toiled together for two decades until Matignon fell ill and died in the bishop’s arms on Sept. 19, 1818. Cheverus recorded the milestone in a church journal, writing with a shaky hand that Matignon “died as he had lived like a Saint at 65.”
His funeral procession, according to a newspaper account of the day, drew 1,000 mourners and 15 carriages. But Catholics did not yet have a cemetery, so his body was temporarily interred in the Granary Burying Ground.
Cheverus then went in search of hallowed ground for his dear friend.
IN NOVEMBER 1818, Boston’s Board of Health approved the new cemetery. A few days before Christmas, Matignon’s body was exhumed from the Granary and conveyed to South Boston by a grand procession that even some Protestants joined, in tribute to the priest.
The growing congregation dug the next grave there for Susan Alamons, described in a handwritten ledger as “an infant 15 days old.” The consecrated ground next claimed Joseph Kelly on New Year’s Eve. More followed in 1819, including Catherine Whitney and her 11-year-old daughter, Margaret, who died on consecutive days from malignant fever.
By that summer, Catholics had built St. Augustine as a mortuary chapel. It was a simple rectangle — 19 feet wide by 34 feet long — built of fire-hardened red bricks now so old that rust-colored dust collects in corners. The structure was enlarged in 1831 to accommodate a growing church, but still fits just a dozen rows of wooden pews.
Six tapered windows line the nave. The walls hold hand-colored lithographs of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the suffering and crucifixion of Christ with descriptions written in French. When one lithograph went missing, a Boston artist reproduced the station and “then ‘aged’ it 125 years by pouring seven cups of coffee over it,” according to the Boston Traveler.
“You have this connection to the roots of the Catholic Church,” said Robert Allison, a Suffolk University history professor and president of the South Boston Historical Society.
“People have been sitting there in times of sadness and in times of joy, with light streaming through the Gothic windows into this very small chapel that was an outpost in a hostile, forbidding place.”
ANTI-CATHOLIC SENTIMENT flourished anew as Boston’s population soared with a flood of predominantly Irish immigrants. In the midst of stifling heat in August 1834, an angry mob of Protestant laborers ransacked and burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown.
One sickly young nun — Sister St. Henry from Limerick, Ireland — died several weeks later from what her physician described as “shock and tuberculous,” according to the 2000 book “Fire & Roses,” by Nancy Lusignan Schultz. The nun was buried in the floor beneath St. Augustine’s altar.
Hostility against immigrants, and especially Catholics, was long implacable — and little St. Augustine was often a target. During a cholera outbreak in 1849, city officials shuttered the cemetery after neighbors complained about “an extremely nauseous smell” and other sanitary issues “highly detrimental to the public health.”
It seemed plainly a pretext. A grand jury investigated, and the cemetery was reopened after a fiery letter to officials from Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick, whose parents were buried in the cemetery. Fitzpatrick refuted the allegations — vandals had hidden a foul-smelling dead dog in the graveyard — and described what he suggested was a pattern of harassment.
“The Catholics of Boston, as a body, have some reason to feel dissatisfied with the treatment they have received from time to time, in relation to the burial of the dead,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Catholics would soon be left without the right to bury at all, either in the city or out of it.”
ST. AUGUSTINE still stands like a meek country church set in a field of weathered gravestones.
“I know people born and raised in South Boston who have never set foot inside,” said Elaine Connolly, a volunteer who cleans the chapel. “I love the intimacy of it. Somehow, it feels more closely connected with God.”
Now, the chapel hosts 4 p.m. Mass every Saturday and a few dozen worshipers shuffle across a floor dotted with 23 worn, white marble slabs that mark the resting places of New England’s first priests and the religious pioneers who followed them.
A lectern sits over the grave of one of them, the Rev. Alexander Sherwood Healy, who oversaw construction of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross before his death at age 39 in 1875. Healy rose from extraordinary circumstances: His father was a white Irish immigrant farmer in Georgia; his mother was a black slave. They raised nine children who were legally slaves but were smuggled north to be educated.
One Healy brother became president of Georgetown University. Another became the nation’s first African-American bishop, assigned to Portland, Maine. Alexander was the darkest-skinned of the brothers but transcended the violent prejudice of the Civil War era, according to Boston College history professor James M. O’Toole, who studied the family for a decade and wrote the 2002 book “Passing for White.”
“The Irish immigrant parishioners of the cathedral,” O’Toole said, “could overlook the fact that he was black because he was a priest.”
Outside the chapel, Boston’s first Catholic cemetery is now shoehorned onto an acre-sized city block. The lives of 1,500 people buried there fill out a critical — and unfinished — chapter in Boston’s history. Some were renowned in their day; some simply made this corner of the old town their home — blacksmiths, chimney sweeps, tea merchants, and booksellers among them.
The notable dead include the nation’s first Irish policeman, Barney McGinniskin, and Civil War Sergeant Jack Barry, who always carried the Irish flag into battle.
Others are recalled only by those descended from them. Representative Stephen Lynch, for one, has as many as a dozen ancestors buried there, and he recalled that his mother on holidays decorated the graves of her parents, great-uncles, and other relatives — graves, like those around them, hidden in plain sight of bustling, modern Boston.
“It’s a different world inside the walls of that graveyard,” Lynch said.
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