Boston’s first cathedral — long gone, but not forgotten

Planning for the first Catholic church erected in Boston began in 1799, under the leadership of two pioneers in the history of Catholic Boston, Father Jean Cheverus and Father Francis Matignon. With the deed to a site signed on Christmas eve that year, fundraising got underway, but proved insufficient initially. Preliminary construction began on March 17, 1800, then stopped. With more fundraising and generous donations from Protestants, construction resumed in March 1802. Almost exactly 200 years ago, on the Sept. 29 in 1803, the Holy Cross Church was dedicated in the presence of Bishop John Carroll from Baltimore. The day fell on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. An overflow crowd that included many Protestants and city officials attended and heard Father Cheverus preach.

The Holy Cross Church stood at a site in downtown Boston known as Franklin Square. The building was designed by noted Boston architect Charles Bulfinch. Among his works in Boston are the present state house and St. Stephen Church in the North End. The brick exterior was highlighted by a bell tower over the main entrance and ionic columns. The interior was rather simple and included a gallery above the vestibule for the choir and along both sides of the nave.

In April 1808, Boston was raised to the status of a diocese. Father Cheverus was appointed first bishop and established the Holy Cross Church as the Cathedral Church of Boston. It retained this dignified position through the time of Bishop Cheverus (1808-1823), Bishop Joseph Fenwick (1825-1846) and the third bishop of Boston, John Bernard Fitzpatrick (1846-1866). In the years prior to the Civil War, the area surrounding the cathedral became increasingly commercial with few families living in the vicinity. Also, the cathedral had deteriorated. Bishop Fitzpatrick, with the consent of his flock, approved selling the site with an eye toward building a suitable cathedral elsewhere. The final Mass took place on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1860, with Bishop Fitzpatrick presiding. Accounts of the day tell us the bishop was too overcome with sadness to speak. The sermon was preached by Father James Healey. Also attending was Father James Fitton, at that time the oldest priest in the diocese. An energetic church builder, Father Fitton had been baptized, confirmed and ordained in the Franklin Square cathedral.

In the aftermath, services were held in the Melodeon Theatre at the corner of what is today Washington and Lafayette Streets. In 1862, a Unitarian church at Washington and Castle Streets was purchased and converted into a pro-cathedral. After the civil war, construction got underway for the new cathedral. The cornerstone was laid in 1867. Archbishop Williams dedicated the cathedral on December 8, 1875. That same year, he was appointed Boston’s first Archbishop. The old cathedral was no more, but the original altar was set up adjacent to the crypt in the basement.

The 100th anniversary of the dedication of the first cathedral was remembered with a solemn pontifical Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Sunday, Sept. 27, 1903. Archbishop Williams, 82 at the time, was the only one alive to have been associated with the old cathedral. Indeed, his parents, immigrants from Ireland, were married there. He was also baptized there, attended the cathedral school opened by Bishop Fenwick and served as rector from January 1856 to July 1857. He paid tribute to the memory of all those priests who were associated with the old cathedral over the course of a century passed. He also remembered, with much appreciation, the financial support of Protestant businessmen which hastened the completion of the new cathedral in 1803.

In 1950, a tablet was engraved adjacent to the entrance to the St. Thomas More Oratory at 49 Franklin Street in Boston. It reads: “Near this site stood THE CATHEDRAL OF THE HOLY CROSS, established 1803 by Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus, First Catholic Bishop of Boston; Missionary to the Penobscot Indians; Friend of President John Adams; Advisor to our State Legislature; One of America’s noblest priests. He stood by the bedside of Catholic and Protestant alike. This tablet placed by a group of Protestant Businessmen, 1950.”