Mass to mark the anniversary of archdiocese’s oldest parish church

SALEM -- The Catholic community in Salem along with Archbishop William Fitzpatrick of Boston dedicated a new church Jan. 10, 1858, named for the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of Immaculate Conception.

On Sept. 7 Cardinal Seán O’Malley will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Church, which is now the oldest parish church in the Archdiocese of Boston and the oldest church building where Mass has been continuously celebrated on a weekly basis.

The Mass will begin at 11 a.m. and the cardinal will be joined by many of the priests who have served at Immaculate Conception and other Salem parishes over the years, as well as priests who grew up in the parish. Other invited guests include many dignitaries from politics, academia, other religious groups and other areas of the community. It is expected that members of parishes in the city and surrounding towns will attend, as well as those who grew up in the parish, but have since moved away.

This commemoration is taking place during the bicentennial year of the Archdiocese of Boston, and it highlights Salem as one of the first places where the “Great Tree of Catholic Life”--as described by the first mother-superior of the convent at Immaculate Conception--took root in Massachusetts.

When the parish was founded in 1826 as St. Mary’s Parish, the original, modest wooden church was built on what is now Bridge Street in Salem, near the present St. James Parish. In 1858, a new larger brick church was constructed to accommodate the growing Catholic community of mainly Irish immigrants. Construction was started in 1857 following an incident in the old St. Mary’s church on Christmas Day 1856, when the timbers of the old church began to groan and crack from bearing up the great numbers of Catholics in the parish. It was a clear signal a new church was needed.

Early the next year, Pastor Father James Conway purchased the old “Hodges” estate on Walnut Street, now Hawthorne Boulevard, for $2,000. Then, in the spring the construction began under the oversight of the pastor, who did not survive to see his work finished. With the church mostly finished, on Jan. 10, 1858, it was dedicated and its first Mass was celebrated.

Bishop Louis S. Walsh, native son of Salem who was later bishop of Portland, Maine, wrote this description of the original building when it opened:

“The church was Romanesque in style of architecture, the foundation of granite, and the body of the building in common brick with freestone trimmings. It was 98 feet in length, the full extent of the original lot of land, 64 feet in width, and the side walls 50 feet in height. On the roof above the façade, rose a kind of bell-tower, surmounted by a large gilded cross. Long wooden steps without balustrade stretched imposingly across the front of the church, and an entrance to the basement opened on the south side, near Walnut Street, while on the north side was another entrance near the wall. The interior, substantially the same as now, was finished with neatness, the walls and ceiling being beautifully frescoed. The windows were of fine cathedral glass, without figures, but elegantly stained, and on the small circular windows overhead were painted symbols representing the Christian mysteries. The woodwork of the pews on the floor and of the gallery front was in chestnut, highly finished and varnished by Mr. Edward Foley. There were 150 pews on the floor with capacity to seat 1,000 person, and the galleries, finished later, would accommodate about 300 people. ... The entire cost of the building was $50,000.”

One connection to that time is Catherine Mack, a resident of Salem, who said her grandfather worked on the delicate filigree cast in concrete that surrounds the arch above the altar. Later, her grandfather’s construction company built Salem Hospital.

Following the Mass on Sept. 7, a light repast will be offered in the parish hall where Cardinal O’Malley will greet those present.