The birth of the Catholic Union of Boston

Throughout the history of the Archdiocese of Boston there have been many men's and women's Catholic organizations that have formed for a variety of reasons. A circular letter from the archive's collection, dated Oct. 5, 1877, provides some insight into one of these groups -- The Catholic Union of Boston.

The formation of the Catholic Union was inspired by Pope Pius IX, who, based on his observations of contemporary events, believed the Catholic Church was under threat, and urged Catholic laity to come together in support of it. Heeding his call, 25 Catholics met at the Parker House in Boston on March 3, 1873, and resolved to form a Catholic Union. The circular letter reveals the organization's mission, which was to promote "conversational interchange of information and views relating to all subjects of interest to the Catholic mind."

In essence, the gatherings which took place every Wednesday evening would call upon each member to "contribute the fruits of his study and judgment" by sharing his thoughts and information on current events "in which Catholic society is concerned." Discussions ranged among a number of fields including history, science, literature, or any other subject by which "knowledge" and "true Catholic culture" may be promoted.

Each of the approximately 400 members were expected to read at least one original paper per "season" at a weekly meeting or special event. The Union also sponsored public lectures, and published reports on their discussions of contemporary questions. Having been formed at Archbishop Williams' suggestion, it is acknowledged that he regularly attended meetings, and that the opportunity to acquaint himself and have discussions with Catholic laymen in the community benefited the archdiocese as a whole.

Several sites were used for the meetings throughout the organization's history. The first was located at the corner of Washington and Union Park Streets, near the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. In 1887, a site was purchased at 602 and 604 Tremont Street for the purpose, before the organization moved again, in 1895, to a site at the intersection of Washington Street and Worcester Square.

In addition to public lectures and publications, the Catholic Union also sponsored public events. The first notable occasion was in their first year of existence when, on Nov. 13, 1873, they held a Catholic festival at the Boston Music Hall to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Pius IX's ordination to priesthood. Later, during the celebration of Archbishop William's silver jubilee as Bishop of Boston, in 1891, they hosted a reception with 1,600 people in attendance.

Perhaps one of the most notable achievements of the Catholic Union came in 1874, when they petitioned the Boston City Council to allow residents at city institutions religious freedom. Attempts had been made by Catholics who petitioned the City Council in 1870, and by Archbishop Williams in 1873, but this attempt finally proved successful. Starting in July, 1874, residents at institutions such as prisons, almshouses, and others were offered Catholic Mass on Sunday mornings.

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