Boston's first ordination
On May 31, 1817, a native Irishman by the name of Dennis Ryan received the honor of being the first priest ordained in the Diocese of Boston.
Throughout its early history, the diocese, which then encompassed all of New England, was always struggling to fulfill the demand for priests within its expansive territory. In a report to Rome on Feb. 7, 1817, Bishop Jean Cheverus wrote that while the diocese "is not lacking in sacred vessels, vestments or other things which pertain to the decent performance of divine service," there was still only one priest, Father Francis Matignon, in addition to himself. However, he continues that "there is also Mr. Denis Ryan, an Irishman, recently made deacon and soon to be raised to priesthood. He made his theological studies in the episcopal residence, where he lives with the Bishop and the priest."
Father Ryan's arrival in Boston was certainly the work of fate. In October 1814, in the closing months of the War of 1812, the 28 year old seminarian from Carlow College, Ireland, found himself aboard a British ship en route to Quebec when it was captured by a U.S. Navy vessel. He, along with the rest of the passengers, were held as prisoners of war for the duration of the conflict, then released.
Though their relationship during his captivity warrants further examination, upon his release Father Ryan was taken in by Bishop Cheverus, with whom he resumed his studies. The "History of the Archdiocese of Boston" notes that Ryan was "of mild manners and sincerely pious, although not brilliant in talent, he appeared to the Bishop a welcome prospect for the priesthood."
Bishop Cheverus intended, at least initially, for Father Ryan to assist Father Matignon in ministering to the people of Boston. It was recognized that his assistance would be particularly crucial during the times that Bishop Cheverus was away, travelling to missions in the region. He was ordained to priesthood on May 31, 1817.
After his ordination, Father Ryan would continue to serve the diocese for several decades. He helped Bishop Cheverus dedicate a new church at Whitefield, Maine, on June 30, 1822, and was subsequently assigned to oversee the churches and missions of that region, including Whitefield, Newcastle, and Damariscotta.
The region saw a significant increase in its Catholic population during his time. In an 1832 visit to the Whitefield area, Bishop Fenwick was surprised to see a congregation of about 1,200 Catholics, and ordered that a new church be built to replace the poor wooden structure then in use. He returned on August 12, 1838, for the dedication. Father Ryan also noticed the large congregation which had grown around his Augusta Mission and, with the support of Bishop Fenwick, purchased a Unitarian Church there in May 1836. He also served very briefly as the pastor in Taunton, Massachusetts, in early 1842.
Father Ryan would remain in New England until 1846, when he decided to travel west, and would pass away while the pastor of Lockport, Illinois, on Aug. 29, 1852. At the time, he was reputed to be the third oldest priest in the United States.
Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.