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A Brief History of Historic St. Mary’s Church

Part of St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena Parish

The Early Church in Charlestown

In 1828, Bishop Joseph Fenwick established St. Mary’s, the very first Catholic parish in Boston. That is, it was the first parish to be established separate from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Old St. Mary’s stood on Old Rutherford Avenue (then Richmond Street), site of the present ice rink. The 120-pew building measured 80 by 45 feet and, as a 19th-century book tactfully pointed out, “showed no effort at architectural display.”

This plain building would be stunningly contrasted by the present edifice.

St. Mary’s was one of three large Irish Catholic parishes built in the 1800s in previously Protestant Charlestown. The presence of three large church buildings—each with its own school!—seems incomprehensible in today’s largely gentrified neighborhood. However, the numbers at the time were staggering. According to Bishop Fenwick’s personal journal, in 1873 St. Mary’s had 220 baptisms, 157 weddings, 81 First Communions, and 87 Confirmations!

The third of Charlestown’s three Catholic parishes, St. Catherine of Siena, was founded in 1895. The magnificent Romanesque building was a striking contrast to St. Mary’s Gothic design.

St. Mary’s in Charlestown, circa 1890-1910 (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Our Beautiful Church Building

A masterpiece of church architecture, St. Mary’s was one of the last important works of Patrick C. Keely (1816-1896), architect of over 700 churches, 40 of them cathedrals. The cornerstone was laid on 29 October, 1887; the church was completed five years later at a cost of $235,000.

This figure is absolutely staggering. If you consider the price tag on Old St. Mary’s, $6,000, and the slight deflation, not inflation, of the dollar in those days—$6,000 in 1828 dollars was worth only $4,000 in 1893 dollars—the new church was almost 50 times as expensive as the old one! In 2009 dollars, $235,000 would be the equivalent of $5.5 million. However, even with that sum today, artisans could never be found to construct such a work of art.

The Ceiling

Hammerbeam design.

The spectacular oak ceiling and its twelve angels demonstrate Keely’s genius at wood carving. The angels cleverly conceal the architectural device known as a hammerbeam. In a hammerbeam roof, there is no need for columns, which most every other church has. As a result, every person seated in the pews has an unobstructed view. Keely completed only a few such hammerbeam ceilings (a notable example being St. Joseph’s Abbey in Albany).

The brass light fixtures hanging from the ceiling are the original ones from the 1890s. They are fitted with gas jets as well as electrical sockets. Electricity was considered “experimental” in those days, so all the light fixtures could be run by either gas or electricity.

The Stained Glass

Our breathtaking stained glass windows are as beautiful as any others in the city, if not the country.

Franz Mayer & Co. was founded in Munich, Germany in 1848. Mayer made windows for important churches throughout the world, including at least nine cathedrals in Ireland. Each window contains hundreds of pieces of genuine, mouth-blown glass. The colors were made by adding different metal oxides to the glass while it was still molten. Because the colors are part of the glass, they never fade; in fact, they are known to mellow with age. The Mayer company is still in operation in Munich, run by the fifth generation of the Mayer family.

The windows on either side of the church depict scenes from the New Testament, all from the point of view of Mary and her role in her Son’s life. A similar scheme is found in the Mayer windows at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama. (Click here to see a gallery of stained glass windows.)

The Stations of the Cross & Altar

The pastor of St. Mary’s at the time of its construction, Mons. McMahon, was the brother of the Bishop of Hartford, Connecticut. It is no coincidence that both St. Mary’s in Charlestown and St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford had many of the same contractors, including Keely.

Our exceptional Stations of the Cross were constructed by the great ecclesiastical sculptor, Joseph Sibbel (1850-1907). Sibbel sculpted many important works, including the famous statue of St. Patrick at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Sibbel designed two identical sets of Stations:  one went to St. Mary’s, the other to the Cathedral in Hartford, which unfortunately was destroyed by fire in 1956. However, Sibbel made a similar, slightly larger set of Stations, still in existence at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, Arkansas (another church built by Keely, with Mayer windows!).

It is believed that our altar was designed by Thomas Houghton (Keely’s son-in-law and partner) and built by Charles E. Hall & Company of Boston, with statues by Sibbel. An almost identical altar by Hall, Houghton, and Sibbel was built in 1894 for the now-defunct Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brooklyn, New York. Sibbel created the statuettes of the Twelve Apostles and the two Archangels for that Brooklyn altar, and most likely for ours as well.

The Pipe Organ

Other than the on-off switch for the blower, there is absolutely nothing electric in our prized 1892 pipe organ. The entire mechanism is operated by wood, metal, and air. The largest instrument ever built by Woodberry & Harris of Boston, its 3,000+ pipes were painstakingly voiced and have never been altered. Even with an unlimited budget, no organ builder today could replicate the sound of the instrument, one of the most notable in the Archdiocese.

Mechanically, the organ was state-of-the-art when completed. Because the builders were not allowed to cover Mayer’s large stain glass window, they were forced to divide the organ into two cases. This was a feat of engineering, considering the lack of electricity.

The organ is used for about 300 liturgies per year. That it is able to withstand such use, despite 117 years of wear and tear, is a testament to its extraordinary workmanship. In 1997 the instrument received a citation from the Organ Historical Society.

An Inclusive, Welcoming New Parish

A view of St. Mary’s Church with the Zakim Bridge and the Boston cityscape

On 18 April 2006, St. Catherine’s’ and St. Mary’s combined to form our present Parish. On 10 February 2008, the last Mass was held in the St. Catherine building, which is now closed.

St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena Parish is a growing parish, “an intentionally inclusive community welcoming all of the many people who make up our diverse neighborhood.”

– Leonardo Ciamba, March 2009

Charlestown is a wonderful part of the City of Boston. To see a wonderful collection of old photographs of St. Mary Church, St. Catherine of Siena Church, and Charlestown neighborhoods, visit the Boston Public Library Flickr collection here.