Archbishop Williams, a life remembered

BOSTON -- The remarkable life and times of John Joseph Williams, bishop and later archbishop of Boston from 1866 to 1907 came to an end a century ago this week. The venerable and much-beloved archbishop died on Aug. 30, 1907 at the rectory attached to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. His death at the age of 85 saddened the city and marked the end of an era of great growth in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston. With appropriate ceremonies, the laying in state and funeral Mass took place in the great cathedral the following week. It was fitting for interment to take place in the Holy Cross Cathedral crypt alongside his predecessor, Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick and Father Patrick F. Lyndon, vicar general at the time of the construction of the present cathedral in the 1870s.

Archbishop Williams was a genuine Bostonian, born of Irish immigrant parents downtown near the original cathedral on Franklin Street on April 27, 1822. His parents were married at the cathedral and he was baptized there. After his ordination in Paris on May 10, 1845, he returned home to Boston and helped out for a time in the suburbs. In the summer of 1846, he took charge of the Cathedral Sunday School. Nine years later, in 1855, he was appointed rector of the cathedral. At a centennial celebration of the original Holy Cross Cathedral in April 1903, Archbishop Williams, grateful to have lived to see the event, pointed out his long attachment to the original cathedral. The structure was demolished in the years following the Civil War.

Taking charge of the archdiocese following the death of Bishop Fitzpatrick on Feb. 13, 1866, he was ordained bishop at the old St. James Church on March 11, 1866. A major priority was building a new cathedral. On his birthday, April 27, 1866, ground was broken at the South End site. The cornerstone was laid the following year on Sept. 13. Prior to the dedication of the cathedral on Dec. 8, 1875, another notable event took place on May 2, 1875: the conferral of the pallium making him the first archbishop of Boston with New England as his province.

The archbishop’s death occurred as the archdiocese was approaching its centennial year in 1908. A century later, our archdiocese today is preparing for its bicentennial celebration and we remember the great accomplishments of Archbishop Williams. In Bates Hall at the Boston Public Library, the archbishop is remembered in a bronze bust.