Waltham parish book club finds modern relevance in writings of Chesterton

WALTHAM -- On Nov. 18, the 15 members of the St. Jude Parish G.K. Chesterton Society held their monthly meeting, gathered at a long wooden table in Jake n JOES Sports Grille in Waltham. While those around them eagerly awaited the start of the Bruins game, Father Jeremy St. Martin and his fellow Chestertonians, as they are called, discussed the work of the renowned English Catholic author and philosopher who lived from 1874 to 1936.

Chesterton's writing brought a Catholic perspective to the topics of his day, including democracy, industrialization, and the roles of men and women in society.

"He tackles the most serious issues with a sense of humor that is alarmingly appropriate," said Father St. Martin, parochial vicar at St. Jude.

Father St. Martin discovered Chesterton when he was a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2009, he introduced Chesterton to Father Shawn Carey, who is now pastor at St. Jude.

"I started to become more interested because his perspective is very supportive of life, especially people with disabilities," said Father Carey, who directs the Archdiocese of Boston's Deaf Apostolate. (Father Carey, who is deaf, had his statements interpreted by Father St. Martin.)

Father St. Martin said that Chesterton "tried to warn the world" about the evil of eugenics, exemplified by Nazi Germany. His work popularized the Catholic social teaching of figures like St. John Henry Newman.

"It would be important for anyone to read his work, not just Catholics," Father St. Martin said. "Some of the same problems we were dealing with before World War II, we're dealing with now."

Father Carey read the entirety of Chesterton's 1904 novel "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles and laughed the whole way.

"People were saying, 'What's so funny?' And I'd say, 'It's a good book.'" Father Carey said. "He was doing a good job of pointing out some of the funny things in modern society."

The St. Jude Chesterton Society, founded by Father Carey and Father St. Martin, has met in Waltham since 2021. Father Carey wanted the deaf community to know about Chesterton, and some members of the Deaf Apostolate have since attended monthly meetings.

Chesterton "just knew human nature," said Sister Clare Stephen of the Daughters of St. Paul. "Things he wrote 100 years ago, you'd think he wrote it last week. It applies to people today, society today."

She discovered Chesterton from Gilbert, the magazine published by the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. She read the magazine cover to cover, and "couldn't get enough" of his writing.

"I never did that with any other magazine," she said, "except 16 Magazine when I was a teenager."

She said it was "wonderful" to be able to discuss Chesterton's writing with fellow Catholics, although it was difficult to do so in a noisy sports bar.

"Any time anybody wants to talk Chesterton," she said, "I'll be there."

At the Nov. 18 meeting, the society discussed "The Free Family," the seventh chapter of Chesterton's 1910 philosophical work "What's Wrong with the World?"

Father St. Martin said that Chesterton "does a good job of representing what the goods of a home are, and what the goods of a family are."

He added that Chesterton wrote the book during a period of great social and political change, including the rise of communism, apartment buildings, divorce, and what Father St. Martin called "glorified bachelorhood."

"There were many people who were experimenting in his day and age with new forms of roles for men and women, and new kinds of societies," Father St. Martin said.

The youngest members of the St. Jude Parish G.K. Chesterton Society are two-month-old John Joy and his one-year-old brother Francis. Their parents Kyle and Sarah Joy see great relevance in Chesterton's wisdom about family life.

"I like his works because I think they're very thoughtful," said Kyle Joy as he cradled John in his arms. "He talks about a lot of the stuff that I care about. Things like faith, family. He's a very smart person. Reading his work really elevates the intellect."

Kyle Joy discovered Chesterton in high school and introduced him to his wife.

Chesterton "teaches you how to think in a way," Sarah Joy said, "and formulate your ideas on different Catholic issues."

At the end of the meeting, Father St. Martin nominated a society member to be the "president, universal leader, and emperor" of the society. (The president, universal leader, and emperor declined to be quoted for this story). Father St. Martin also decreed that, from now on, the meetings will be held in the much quieter St. Jude rectory.