From the Spinner Archives
This week we have chosen to feature a series of essays published in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts Volume IV. These essays, which deal with ethnic surveys of various groups in southeastern Massachusetts, were originally produced as part of the Federal Writers Project, one of the programs that made up the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
To read more from the Federal Writers’ Project and to learn about other WPA projects in Southeastern Massachusetts check out Spinner IV, available on iBooks.
From These Strains
The Irish in New Bedford: History of Irish Catholic churches
Excerpted from the Evening Standard Aug. 30, 1887, prepared by Etta F. Martin.
A half century often makes great changes. If some New Bedford Rip Van Winkle had been sleeping for fifty years, and returning to consciousness, should walk our streets, his surprise and wonder may readily be imagined. When he went to sleep, for instance, there were mere handfuls of Irish in New Bedford and they worshipped in a little wooden church on Allen Street, erected at a cost of a few hundred dollars. Today (August 30, 1887) as he walked through our street, he would see a fine stone church and chapel, three substantial wooden churches, three parsonages, three parochial school buildings and a hospital.
New Bedford was one of the pioneer places in New England in the Catholic faith, as early as 1820 having established St. Mary’s Church on Allen Street. In 1820 and previous to that time, there were only a handful of Catholics here and their opportunities to enjoy the ministrations of their religion were extremely limited. Once in several months a priest would come from Newport or some other place and stop at some Catholic home for a few days, visiting from house to house, hearing confessions and administering the sacraments. At that time children of Catholic parents were sometimes taken to Boston by stagecoach to be christened.
Among the priests who thus came to New Bedford was Rev. Father Larasey, an earnest worker, who started a movement for a church edifice. To the little band of Irish this seemed an arduous task, but they seconded the priest’s efforts with zeal. Collections were taken from time to time, and little by little several hundred dollars were accumulated. Seamen who were in port from time to time were liberal givers and the gold pieces contributed by them helped materially to swell the fund.
In 1820 New Bedford’s first Irish Catholic church was built at a cost of 800 dollars. It was on Allen Street near the head of Dartmouth, and a very unpretentious edifice it was—of wood, one story, not even clapboarded. It was very much like one of the small country schoolhouses we see now, the wooden cross above it alone distinguishing it as a place of worship. The site was a very pleasant one, on rising ground, the greensward extending some 150 feet in front, while to the east and rear was the parish graveyard. The grounds were enclosed by a board fence. “A beautiful place it was on a pleasant Sunday,” says one of the early residents, reverting to the days of his boyhood. “That part of the town was not built up and one could look from the rising ground where the church stood, off over an expanse of green fields and see in the distance the blue waters of the bay. I can remember the little church as though it were yesterday, and can again seem to see the male parishioners gathered at the front of the building before service and the women kneeling upon the graves, praying.” The lot of land upon which the church stood was the gift of Patrick Cluney.
It was a red letter day for New Bedford’s Irish when the little church was opened for worship. The building was not consecrated, as the Catholics do not consecrate a house until all the building expenses are liquidated, but Bishop Cheverus came down from Boston and gave the introductory sermon. Father Larasey was the first pastor of St. Mary’s church, as the church was named, but for years regular services were not held. It was only once in several weeks that the priest could come, so limited was the number of priests in the diocese. The Reverend Father would come a few days before Sunday, in order to hear confessions and prepare members of the church for communion, and after celebrating on the Sabbath he would go on to some other place.
In a small sacristy at the north of the building the first Sunday School was held. The furniture consisted of a desk and a row of wooden benches along the wall. The children sat on these benches and the priest was the Sunday School teacher. Bishop Fenwick of Boston, it is remembered, administered confirmation in the old church. The church was always decorated for Christmas and on that night a midnight mass was held. There was no organ, but on special occasions a music master named Coakley played a clarinet and another musician the flute. Mr. Frank O’Connor of 299 County Street was an altar boy.
Father McNulty was really the first regular pastor of St. Mary’s, which for years was more like a mission than an established church. The first mass ever held in New Bedford was a great attraction to the curious outsiders who would stand in the churchyard and listen or look in at the windows.
Among the earlier members of St. Mary’s Parish were: John Burke, Patrick Gallagher, Patrick Cluney, Patrick Commerford, Peter O’Connor, John Ryan, Cormack McEllany, Thomas Murphy, Daniel O’Connor, James Gilman, John Hay, Bernard Clark, Dennis Cavanagh, Wm. McGarvey, Morris Buckley, Andrew Kerrigan, Philip Johnson, Peter Murphy, Edw. O’Connell, Philip Nolan, Thomas O’Hara, and James Rotch.
For a long time St. Mary’s burying ground was the only Catholic Cemetery in New Bedford, and those Catholics who lived in the surrounding villages brought their dead to be interred in consecrated ground Mr. Edw. Kavenagh tells of one man bringing his dead child from Wareham in his farm wagon to bury him here.
In those days the present corner of Allen and County Streets, “Dog Corner” as it was called then, was a most unsavory locality, and when the Catholic women went to church they used to go in groups, fearing insult should they go alone.
The church increased very slowly in membership till the railroad was built between this city and Taunton in 1840, establishing connection with Boston. Up to that time there had been nothing to call the Irish here, but with the railroad and various business enterprises many Irish families were among those who came to New Bedford. The old church was enlarged, and then in April 1849 sold and the Universalist Church at the corner of Fifth and School Streets was bought. The old church was moved away, but the lot continued to be used as a burying ground.
The visit of Father Matthew in 1849, renowned apostle of temperance, was an event of great interest to Catholic and Protestant alike. He secured thousands of pledges in New York and Boston and then visited many smaller places. He came to New Bedford on Wednesday, September 20, and was a guest at the Mansion House. For weeks the people had been looking forward to his coming and a right royal welcome they gave him. A procession was organized at City Hall, of which Timothy Ingraham was chief marshall, and the line included the New Bedford Band, the Temperance Societies of New Bedford and Fairhaven (7 organizations), the teachers and pupils of the public schools, and members of the City Council and School Committee. The procession moved to the Mansion House and Father Matthew entered a carriage with Mayor A. H. Howland, Alderman Grant of Boston, and James B. Congdon, Esq. the procession moved through the principal streets, which were thronged, to Liberty Hall, and on the way Father Matthew was greeted with showers of bouquets. At Liberty Hall an address of welcome was made by Mr. Congdon, to which Father Matthew responded. The next day Father Matthew went to St. Mary’s, which was thronged with people, eager to take the pledge from the hands of the great temperance worker.
In 1853 Reverend Henry S. Henniss was appointed to St. Mary’s Parish, and was New Bedford’s first American-born priest. Under his labors St. Mary’s took firm standing as a parish and it is to Father Henniss that older Catholics refer with tenderest love and reverence.
When he first arrived here he went to the Parker House and was there thrown more with Protestants than the earlier priests who had boarded with Catholic families. Many leading citizens called upon him, and he quickly won their esteem and respect. He found the parish neither united nor self-supporting, but he was not dismayed. He had a rare faculty for organizing, was a man of great energy and foresight, and entered into the work before him with utmost zeal. In 1854 the increase of Irish made an enlargement of the church necessary, and under the leadership of the pastor an addition was built, nearly doubling the seating capacity. It is remembered that Father Henniss was a remarkably skillful skater and enjoyed the sport. On one occasion he skated from Nantucket to Hyannis. He was also a fine tenor singer and musician and took pains with his choir. Almost the first purchase Father Henniss made after getting the parish in order was the organ later used in St. Lawrence’s Church. The first time the organ was played in public was a great day for parishioners and many eyes were filled with tears as the people listened. In 1854 Father Henniss bought seven acres of land in Dartmouth for a new cemetery—the present one. He had the ground graded, laid out, and enclosed in a neat stone wall, and in 1856 all bodies were removed to the new cemetery from Allen Street. He personally supervised the sad and gruesome work of transferring the remains from the old to the new cemetery. His friends believed that his labor and responsibility, in his feeble health, caused his death.
Still the parish increased, and it becoming evident a new church edifice would be needed in the future, Father Henniss with his usual
foresight bought land on County and Hillman Streets from Dr. Lyman Bartlett. So much enthusiasm did he arouse among his parishioners that they raised the money ($5,500) in a single year. This was par of the lot where St. Lawrence’s now stands. Father Henniss was pastor of the church for 5 to 6 years and laboring unceasingly for three of these years and laying the foundations for the present prosperity of the parish. For years he had been suffering from consumption and the disease now had such a hold on him that it was evident that his life could not be prolonged. He went to Cuba and to Aiken, S.C., but it was of no avail, and he died in Sept. 1859, at the age of 37 years. No pastor was more deeply mourned. He was so kind, so genial, so quick-witted, that he at once made friends wherever he went, among Catholics or Protestants.
Father Hennis left the parish free from debt and in a very prosperous state. During his pastorate he made rules, some of which are in force at the present time, Rosary and Sanctuary Societies, which were later reestablished by Father Smyth.
The next pastor was Rev. Father Joseph P. Tallon, who had been Father Henniss’ assistant and who was intimately acquainted with his plans. He took these plans up where Father Henniss had left them. He prepared drawings and specifications for a new brick church to be built on the County Street lot, the plans being similar to the Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. Measures were taken for the erection of the church when the Civil War broke out and New Bedford received a severe blow to all its interests. The idea of building had to be postponed, but he continued the work of raising funds, looking forward to the time when peace should once more reign. But six months before the capture of Richmond, Father Tallon died, in 1864, at the early age of 31. His unselfishness is shown in the fact that he labored with unabated zeal to provide money for the new church after his failing health made it evident that it would never be given him to build. He was content to sow, even though another might reap.
January 1, 1865, Rev. Lawrence Stephen McMahon assumed the pastorate of St. Mary’s. When he came here he found the original lot on County Street, containing 20,000 square feet, paid for and $13,300 in the treasury. In 1865 he purchased of the heirs of Washington T. Walker a house and lot next to the original lot and still another lot in the rear, for $6,700. This gave 20,000 feet more. The house was moved a little to the west and is the present parsonage. Ground was broken for the new church in May 1866, and the corner stone was laid Nov. 1 of that year. At 10 A.M. on that day the usual ceremonies of All Saints’ Day were solemnized at the church on Fifth Street, Father McMahon conducting them. The house was densely crowded and hundreds were unable to gain admittance. After this service the Catholic Temperance Society, the Sunday School, and the congregation generally, headed by the New Bedford Brass Band, marched to the lot on County Street, where some 5,000 people had assembled. At 11:30 Bishop Williams and other clergymen, in their robes, proceeded to the southeast corner of the lot where the service was held. The stone was laid by Bishop Williams, and the box placed under it contained a history of St. Mary’s Church, a list of members of the Church Fund Society, a programme of the service in Latin, engrossed on parchment, coins and copies of the Boston Pilot and the New Bedford Standard and Mercury. The building operations went on under the closest supervision of Father McMahon, who remained on the ground day after day, and the edifice was first opened to the public on Sunday morning, Dec. 25, 1870—Christmas morning—when over 600 people attended mass at 5 A.M.
St. Lawrence’s Church is a fine specimen of architecture and an ornament to the city. It is of stone, the original plans for a brick church having been discarded and new plans procured by Father McMahon.
In addition to raising about $30,000 for the church building and furnishing and attending to the varied interests of the parish, Father McMahon bought the St. Joseph’s Hospital property on Pleasant Street, the building and fitting costing $30,000. It was opened in 1873. The Hospital was also the home of the Sisters of Mercy, who were teachers in the parochial schools.
In 1872 Father McMahon was appointed vicar general of the Providence Diocese, and in 1879 was made Bishop of Hartford. His departure was greatly regretted by Catholics and Protestants, many of the latter being his warm friends.
The next pastor of St. Lawrence’s was Rev. Hugh J. Smyth, who assumed charge of the parish Sept. 25, 1879, and proved a worthy successor to Fathers Henniss, Tallon and McMahon.
The membership of St. Lawrence’s constantly increased, while the parish financially and spiritually continued a very prosperous condition. Thomas McDonald was superintendent of the Sunday School, which held its sessions at St. Mary’s Church. Other superintendants of St. Mary’s School were Frank O’Connor, John McCullough, Michael Kennedy, James Nittleton, Jeremiah Sullivan, John Corish, Maurice Walsh, James Bawson, James Kirwin, Mr. Murphy, Andrew Porter and John Shay.
Father Smyth upon taking up the work of the parish at once turned his attention to the erection of parochial schools. In 1881 he bought the lot on Linden Street, near County, where St. Joseph’s School now stands, and in 1883 that building was finished. Father Smyth then purchased land on Acushnet Avenue for the south parochial school, and the building—St. Mary’s—was finished in 1885. They are substantial (and are still in use today—1937). Both schools are carried on successfully under the care of the Sisters of Mercy, who are well fitted for their work of teaching, and both are under the directions of Father Smyth.
[Top Banner image: The construction of St. Lawrence Church tower in 1880. The superstructure was erected in 1867. Courtesy of St. Lawrence Parish..]