Bishop Dooher recalls S. Boston waterfront, original Seaport Chapel

Earlier this month, we sat down with Bishop John Dooher, Auxiliary Bishop of Boston, to discuss his connection with South Boston and Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel. Also known as the Seaport Chapel, Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel celebrated its final Mass April 16, Easter Sunday.

Bishop Dooher was born to parents Anthony and Brigid Dooher on May 3, 1943. Though he was raised in Dorchester, his family attended St. Peter's Church, and much of his extended family resided in South Boston.

"You can't live in Dorchester without spending time in Southie," he explained. "In South Boston then, there were closer to 72,000 people living in those three square miles, and, so, you were not going to find housing there. So my parents found a little place to rent in 'three-decker Dorchester.'"

He recalls frequent trips to South Boston, including accompanying his mother on visits to her family, and waiting near St. Augustine's church to watch the St. Patrick's Day parade each year during his childhood.

As a young man, Bishop Dooher attended St. John's Seminary in Brighton.

"As a seminarian, I worked one or two summers on L Street, in the L Street Bathhouse, doing lawns, sweeping, taking care of everyday things to raise some tuition for my first two years in the seminary. Because in those days the first college years you were expected to go out and get jobs in the summers and raise some of that tuition," he said.

Upon completing his studies at the seminary, Bishop Dooher was ordained on May 21, 1969. His first assignment was St. Francis Xavier in Weymouth, where he spent five years. Following that, he would spend the next 22 years in South Boston parishes, first at St. Augustine's from 1974 to 1991, and then 1991 to 1995 at Sts. Peter and Paul.

The following is an edited version of the conversation with Bishop Dooher.

What was South Boston like during your childhood?

A very strong neighborhood community. And while it could be a tough community, any mother, or any woman, could walk down the streets at any time. (Later, while at St. Augustine's,) I remember there was a bag snatching, and you would think the barbarian hordes had come in, that this was an invasion of the Vikings or something, it was such a shocking thing... In one sense, kids could be tough, but every grandmother knew your grandmother, and so there was a tendency to have a certain control there.

Our Lady of Good Voyage Opened in 1952, do you have any recollections of the neighborhood from around that time?

That part of the city was so different than it is today. If you walked down there, you wouldn't recognize it. And in those early years, there were, I think, some factories, but a lot of it was open space from factories and things that had been taken down.

It was always known for a couple of restaurants, and that's really what brought people to that part of the city. Other than that, it was the seaport, the fishermen, people that worked in the fishing industry, and people who were working in different industrial kinds of things.

When did you first become aware of the chapel itself?

Until a certain point, I didn't really know the chapel. And it was always a place where probably the old pressmen from the newspapers might go on Sunday, the split-shift nurses, and (people) like that. And, from out of there was also a kind of ministry to the seaport itself. ... As things arose, and a particular priest was chaplain there, he might all of the sudden draw interest in this particular need.

What type of ministries or services do you recall the chaplains providing?

(I remember Father Philip LaPlante) started working at the chapel, and he would do a lot of work for the hungry going to Long Island. He had a group of people who would work out of the chapel, and they would go to Long Island Hospital which was housing for people living on the streets; they would bus them out there every night because they didn't have enough room to sleep them in town. And at least once a week, he would have a group of people who would bring food out and do the serving of the food there.

I remember one time he called me and said he couldn't make something, and it was because he was having heart surgery...lying in bed, he could make one call, and he called me! He had the surgery, they put in a new valve for him, and the next thing you know he's climbing up the gangplank from low tide all the way up one of those huge cargo ships to do his visiting of workers -- all these third-world people, who had no one really to think about them, but he did. And he had a group of people who worked very generously on that, very dedicated people.

I can remember stories of him, saying that they would bring boxes of whatever they could get -- it sometimes might be a brand new pair of shoes or whatever -- then putting them all on the ground and these people grabbing the shoes looking, saying, 'I have a child that these will fit!' They wouldn't get home for maybe three, four, five months, but now they had something to bring home. A lot of those very human things were done.

Can you recall any other similar stories?

"I guess this was how influential the chaplain could be to the seaport in terms of officials. One time, there was a number of people, I think they were Turkish, and the sailors were very afraid of sailing with the ship, they didn't believe it was safe. I don't know how he got there, or if they got him (Father LaPlante), so then he called the Coast Guard, and the next thing you know they didn't go out until an inspection was done and whatever was needed was repaired. So I think the chaplain there could have a lot of influence.

What about everyday services at the chapel?

"I think we had one Mass on Saturday night, and then we'd have two Masses on Sunday morning, and then we'd have two Masses on Sunday night.

The two Masses on Sunday night were usually pretty well filled because it was the last Mass in the city of Boston. And I can remember parents telling me that maybe it was from skiing, or the cape, the kids (would) come home (and the parents would ask) -- "Did you go to Mass? Well get over to the chapel!" -- and they'd wind up coming to Mass at the waterfront chapel.

Who else attended regular Mass at the chapel?

It was a kind of special place. Some people started coming just because they started coming, and sometimes you don't know the reason why.

There weren't people living at the waterfront itself. You had to come all the way up to St. Vincent de Paul to get that -- the people, the neighborhoods. Basically, you didn't find any residential area until you got up until around First Street in South Boston. And that was a long distance, in terms of a street anyway, to get down to the harbor itself. And that was all land to be developed, and I think much of it, a lot of it, was landfill.

The businesses kind of surrounded it, that whole waterfront development, but they would not be there on Sundays.

What have you seen change since your childhood, since your assignments in South Boston parishes?

Now there is co-op housing that was built through the work of the community, members of the Archdiocese's Housing Office, and rather than just building things, it was co-op housing where people would get in with the idea of buying to own. And that was named after Father Martin (Father Walter Martin, SJ, one of the earliest chaplains.)

Before, when we had Mass, almost everyone drove to the chapel and we parked all along the street. Then they built the first huge performance tent, all of a sudden, across from the chapel. Then, Saturday and Sunday nights there'd be thousands of people there, and I'm out there putting cones out to try to save parking spots! ... It made it interesting, not something I had planned to do as a pastor or administrator. So that's how radically changed it is.

That whole part of the city now, I'm lost in. I couldn't find my way around it. Drop me in there, I'd think I was in New York City. It is totally different. Before there was nothing for three or four blocks, now there are apartments. The expensive restaurants that we thought were there top of the line are closed.

How do you feel about the new development taking place in the area?

I think people saw the development as good because there was nothing there, it was not like they were driving into green fields, it was a place where once there were buildings, but they were no longer.

The chapel was better than most, but that area was in need of development, so I think people just said "Well, it's not going to stay like this." They could see South Boston itself was developing in all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways.

It's a great place for people to live, always a terrific place. And now it's taken on a whole new population, those cities and towns and sections have a way of turning over, and I think that whole part of the city is turning over.