For more than a century, St. Catherine of Siena Church was a cornerstone of the Charlestown neighborhood, a close-knit parish that seemed impervious to the change that swirled around it.
When the Catholic church closed a decade ago, it took a piece of the old Charlestown with it, residents said.
It had stood vacant ever since. But now, the church has taken on new life — if a decidedly secular one — as a haven for bargain shoppers known as Dollar Tree.
Where parishioners used to receive communion, patrons now peruse aisles for food, toys, party supplies, and other discounted items. The only remaining religious display is for devotional candles decorated with images of St. Francis, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Jesus. They sell, like everything else in the store, for $1.
The church’s sanctuary space, with its soaring arches and oak woodwork, remains empty. But the transformation of the church’s lower level, where Mass was often celebrated, into a retail store has been jarring, residents said.
“People are hurt by it,” said local historian and longtime Charlestown resident Bob Powers. “The fabric of this community was once anchored in its churches. People had their baptisms here, weddings, confirmations.”
Boston has become accustomed to churches being redeveloped as luxury condominiums, from the former Holy Trinity German Catholic Church in the South End to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in South Boston. Dollar Tree caters to the other end of the income scale, a rare development in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified in recent years.
Tina Goodnow said she has shopped at Dollar Tree almost every day since it opened May 31. The only supermarket in Charlestown, Whole Foods Market, is too expensive for her budget, she said. Before Dollar Tree opened, she often took the bus to Somerville to buy food for herself and her two children living at home, ages 8 and 18.
“Being a Christian, I never thought I would shop in a store that’s in a church,” she said. “But where else am I supposed to go?”
Dollar Tree is right down the street from Bunker Hill Housing Development, the city’s largest public housing project, with 1,100 subsidized units. While the store offers a dizzying array of merchandise, what has to be restocked most often are the shelves of food and beverages, the small freezer-and-cooler section, and everyday items like toilet paper and boxes of tissues, said store manager Alberto Padilla.
“We needed something like this around here,” said Katrina Smith, who was working the store’s cash register Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier that day, Smith said, she helped a customer who said he had been married in St. Catherine’s. He was skeptical when he came in, but ended up making a purchase, she said.
Except at the entrance, when customers pass through a Romanesque Revival brick facade, no trace of the church remains. With its tiled floor, fluorescent lighting, and tightly packed merchandise, the store could just as easily be in a suburban strip mall.
But that space is where Mass was said for the first time in the church on Christmas Day 1887, according to the Boston Landmark Commission.
That came just a few months after its cornerstone was laid, a summer day when a crowd of at least 10,000 processed through the neighborhood to mark the occasion, according to a Boston Globe account. The event was described as “one which will long be remembered by the Catholic population of Charlestown,” an area that had been heavily Protestant.
Michael Rauseo, president of Suffolk Company, a real estate brokerage firm based in Charlestown, bought the property from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in 2013 for $1.4 million. The purchase included a building at 15 Tufts St., which became a community health center run by North End Waterfront Health.
Rauseo said the Dollar Tree store has been a welcome addition. “This section of Charlestown could use more retail usage,” he said.
There are several businesses interested in moving into the building’s upper level, Rauseo said. Most likely, it will become a restaurant with a function hall.
Powers attends St. Francis de Sales Parish on Bunker Hill Street, but he knew St. Catherine’s well. It was his grandmother’s parish, and his uncle, David F. Powers, an aide to President John F. Kennedy, was once head usher there.
“This was the church of the poor,” said Powers as he walked through the store for the first time Thursday afternoon, greeting shoppers like it was a Sunday service.
Dollar Tree isn’t a true solution for affordable groceries, Powers said, noting its limited selection. But it still marks something of a victory for the people in Charlestown who don’t live in million-dollar homes.
“No one sees this part of Charlestown,” Powers said. “No one really wants to see it.”