St. Mary of the Angels, Roxbury celebrates centennial year

ROXBURY — On Sunday Sept. 9, 1906, parishioners of a new parish named in honor of St. Mary of the Angels gathered for Mass in a car barn, made available by the Boston Elevated Railroad Company for a temporary chapel. On the morning of Sept. 10, 2006, parishioners gathered at the same site on Washington and School Streets for a prayer service and procession to the church for a Mass of Thanksgiving, led by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley in honor of the 100th anniversary of the parish.

Establishing St. Mary of the Angels Parish for the Egleston Square area was one of the final acts of Archbishop John Williams prior to his death on Aug. 30, 1907. Father Henry F. Barry was appointed founding pastor on May 26, 1906. A scholarly priest and able orator, Father Barry eagerly got to work to provide for his parish. In the summer, the Schuman estate on Columbus Ave. and Walnut Street was purchased as the site of a church. The house on site was utilized as a rectory. After Christmas, Father Barry took ill. He died unexpectedly at the Carney Hospital on Jan. 10, 1907. On the morning of his funeral, Mass was offered in his memory at the chapel. Both Archbishop Williams and his successor, Archbishop O’Connell presided at his funeral Mass at the cathedral on Jan. 12.

It fell to Father Barry’s successor, Father Dennis J. Sullivan to build a suitable church. Laying the cornerstone on Oct. 5, 1907 was one of the first acts of Archbishop William O’Connell as he began a new era in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston. In March 1908, the basement style church was completed. In 1916, Father Sullivan was transferred to St. Patrick Parish in Roxbury. The parish’s third pastor, Father Charles A. Finnegan, presided over St. Mary’s to his death on Sept. 5, 1953. The original plans laid out in 1908 envisioned a more suitable church would be erected over the lower church at a later time. By the mid 1930s, this plan was abandoned as the Catholic population of the area declined.

Pastors in the time of Cardinals Richard Cushing and Antonio Medeiros included Father James P. Donovan (1952-1965), Father Henry F. Barry (1965-1968), Father William F. Calter (1968-1973) and Father Anthony Vassaturo (1973-1976).

A new era began with the arrival of Father Jack Roussin as administrator on Dec. 9, 1976. By the 1970s, the parish was struggling amid typical urban ills. One of Father Roussin’s first priorities was to have the rectory painted as a sign of renewal. Affable and friendly, Father Roussin served St. Mary’s for almost 16 years. He was appointed pastor on April 23, 1991. Not content with just parish work, Father Roussin involved himself in the Egleston Square area to improve the quality of life for the neighborhood. Among projects he contributed to was establishing a community center for youth. The center on Washington Street is today named after him. Toward the end of 1992, he announced plans to join the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle and serve in Peru. A Mass of farewell took place on Nov. 8, 1992. Mayor Raymond Flynn attended and unveiled a nearby street sign for Father Jack Roussin Way.

Arriving in Peru in 1993, Father Roussin had charge of his own parish in Carabayllo, a town on the outskirts of Lima. Returning to Boston and not in the best of health, he died suddenly at St. Elizabeth Hospital on June 9, 1995 at the young age of 48. Saddened parshioners filled the small basement church for his wake and funeral, celebrated by Cardinal Bernard Law on June 12.

Two Jesuits took charge of St. Mary’s after the time of Father Roussin. Father John Fagan SJ served as pastor from 1993 to 2003. Current pastor, Father David Gill, SJ, was appointed on Aug. 24, 2003. A new crisis hit St. Mary’s in 2004 when the parish discovered itself on the list of parishes to be suppressed as part of the overall reconfiguration of the archdiocese. Parishioners rallied to make a convincing case that St. Mary of the Angels Parish, small but vibrant, plays a vital role in the Egleston Square community.

At the centennial Mass, Cardinal O’Malley ended his homily, mixed with humor and stories by exclaiming “Happy Anniversary” to a full congregation that included many former parishioners who returned for the happy occasion. Receiving a round of applause was the oldest living parishioner, Mary Fitzpatrick, who was baptized at St. Mary’s in 1917. Many active parishioners took part in the offertory procession and prayers of the faithful. Prior to the end of the Mass, parish council members Alvin Shiggs and Rocio Castillo presented Cardinal O’Malley with a painting of the crucifixion in appreciation for his visit to the parish. A luncheon followed the Mass on the grounds of the rectory.

The centennial year celebrations will come to a close on Feb. 11, 2007 with a closing centennial Mass and recognition ceremony for all who have contributed to the parish over the years.