The legacy of Father Joseph Finotti

Sept. 21, 2017 will mark 200 years since the birth of Father Joseph Maria Finotti, who served in the Archdiocese of Boston from 1852 to 1876.

Father Finotti was born in Ferrara, Italy, on Sept. 21, 1817. He entered the Society of Jesus at age 16, and in 1845 arrived in the United States to continue his studies at Georgetown College in Maryland. While studying, he also served as assistant to college librarian, and was ordained a priest two years later, in 1847.

Following ordination, he stayed at the college, serving as a faculty member and librarian. In the latter role, he attempted to compile a subject catalog of the library's collection which consisted of over 13,000 volumes. Though he made great progress, the project was abandoned as he left Georgetown in 1849 to serve at missions in Maryland and Virginia, before departing for Boston in 1852.

In August of that year, Father Finotti was assigned to a mission at Provincetown, which had a population of about 70 Catholics. A priest had not previously been assigned to the town, and his arrival caused at least one Protestant resident to try to gather support to expel him from the town, but the effort failed. Instead, the following year, Father Finotti purchased a local high school, converting it into a chapel and living quarters where he could stay during his visits. He would continue to serve as missionary to the area, despite his other assignments, until it was made a mission of Sandwich in 1857.

While in Boston, Father Finotti was also responsible for serving the city's Italian Catholics, and was later assigned to serve in Brookline, succeeding Father Michael O'Beirne who, shortly after overseeing the construction of Our Lady of the Assumption which opened Sept. 24, 1854, decided to retire to Europe for health reasons.

Father Finotti succeeded him in January of 1855, only for the church to be burned down that April. In October, ground was broken for a new wooden church, St. Columba, whose basement served as the church until the rest of the structure was completed. This church also succumbed to a fire in December, 1862, and a new church was built on the site the following year, by which time Father Finotti had left.

It appears Father Finotti was on sick leave for much of 1863, and letters in the archive allude to recurring health problems, though he does appear to have spent at least some time that year overseeing the construction of a church in Lexington. His next assignment, in 1874, was in Arlington, where he served as pastor until 1876, overseeing the construction of St. Malachy's (later St. Agnes), which was dedicated on September 20, 1874.

Aside from overseeing the construction of several churches, and tending to his congregation, Father Finotti has been recognized for his literary achievements. With the passing of Father John Roddan in 1858, he became the editor of The Pilot newspaper. The History of the Archdiocese of Boston comments that with "this new arrangement brought about a very decided improvement. The Pilot became a scholarly paper ... Father Finotti, with his deep love for literature, brought to the pages of The Pilot the best Catholic writers of the times." It is also noted that the paper, under his leadership, made efforts to help immigrants, explaining cultural aspects of their new country and encouraging them to take part.

His most widely recognized contribution was his "Bibliographica Catholica Americana," published in 1872. From the time he was serving as the librarian at Georgetown College, he had been adding to his own collection of books, the two collections forming the basis of this bibliography of Catholic works published in the United States. Correspondence between Father Finotti and his contemporaries provide glimpses of his work on this publication -- sharing books, trading opinions, and researching authors.

Noted as "Volume I," the work included Catholic publications from 1784 to 1820, but a lukewarm reception saw him stop work on his second volume which was nearly complete, and intended to update the entries through 1873. Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm by his contemporaries, his bibliography was used by scholars until Wilfred Parsons, another Georgetown librarian, published "Early Catholic Americana" in 1939.

Father Finotti departed the Archdiocese of Boston in 1876, attempting to relieve some of his physical ailments with a change in climate. He first settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a faculty member at Mount St. Mary's Seminary; then Omaha, Nebraska; and finally a mission at Central City, Colorado, where he passed away on Jan. 10, 1879.

For further reading, see:

"History of the Archdiocese of Boston," by Harrington, Lord, and Sexton. Boston: The Pilot Publishing Company, 1945.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. V. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1967.

"They Came to Georgetown: The Italians," by George M. Barringer. Published in the Georgetown Magazine, March, 1977.

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.