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The first visits of a priest to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard

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Summer vacation is fast approaching, and for some readers, Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard may be your destination this year. With that in mind, we look to a document from our collection which provides a glimpse into the early Catholic history of both islands.

The document is attributed to Father Henry E.S. Henniss, and dates to July 14, 1857. At the time, Father Henniss was the pastor of New Bedford, which also made him responsible for serving Catholics on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. In the first section, "Notes on the Mission of Nantucket," he opens by telling us that "the following facts have been elicited after a diligent examination of the oldest inhabitants of the Island of Nantucket."

According to his account, the first priest to visit the island was Father Patrick Canavan, in October 1833. Like Father Henniss, Father Canavan was the pastor of New Bedford and arrived by boat, saying the first Mass on the island in the house of James Gallagher on Washington Street. The Gallagher family, and another family by the name of Blessing, were the first Catholic families to settle on the island, having arrived in October 1831 from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Two of their children, William Henry Blessing and William P. Gallagher, are recognized as the first two Catholic children born on the island.

The next visit by a Catholic priest would not take place until two years later, when Father Francis Kiernan arrived on March 29, 1835. Sadly, as Father Henniss records, "this was his first and last visit as he died afterwards in Portland." He continues to give an account of each successive priest to visit the island, stopping to note one instance in which Father Patrick Strain caused some friction by saying Mass at the Episcopal Church next to the "Ocean House." This upset both Catholic and Episcopalian leadership, and subsequent Masses were celebrated at Harmony Hall which had been built by the Sons of Temperance.

Father Strain was succeeded by Father Thomas McNulty, and in turn by Father Henniss in the autumn of 1853. He first visited the island in February 1854, at which time he celebrated Mass and set up a Sunday school at the home of Mrs. Lucy Sullivan on Main Street, next to the Quaker Meeting House, with Mrs. Sullivan acting as the instructor. He continued to visit the island quarterly, holding Mass at either Harmony Hall or Pantheon Hall, and hearing confessions at the home of Mr. John Meenagh. On April 8, 1856, Harmony Hall was purchased to establish a more permanent place of worship.

With a permanent structure now in place, Father Joseph Tallen visited the following year, on July 12, 1857, to erect a permanent altar and tabernacle, and move the Sunday school to the new building. Father Henniss closes this portion of his account by stating that the number of Catholics residing on Nantucket was 250.

The document continues with "Notes on Martha's Vinyard (sic.)" The island was first visited by the aforementioned Father McNulty in 1848. His visit was brief, and prompted by a request to visit a sick person in Holmes Hole.

A Catholic priest would not visit the island again for six years, until Father Hennis arrived on Sept. 5, 1854. After arriving in Edgartown and finding no Catholics, he ventured to Holmes Hole and celebrated Mass at Mr. Dorian's "Great House." He would later return to Edgartown, and celebrate the first Mass there at the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Sylva, whose child was also the first baptized on the island.

Father Henniss ends by mentioning that a Catholic priest now visits the island twice each year, and places the number of Catholics residing there at 40.

Both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard would remain part of the Diocese of Boston until February 16, 1872, when they were ceded to the newly formed Diocese of Providence. They were transferred again, in 1904, with the creation of the Diocese of Fall River.

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