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'Meddling in high affairs'

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The contents of the letter are not out of the ordinary. However, upon further investigation, it did lead to an interesting episode in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston.

The papers of Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick contain a letter to Bishop Fitzpatrick from Abbe Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg dated Dec. 22, 1846. The contents of the letter are not out of the ordinary. However, upon further investigation, it did lead to an interesting episode in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Abbe Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg was born in Bourbourg, France (about 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk), in the year 1814. He studied in Rome, was ordained in 1845, and later that year travelled via Boston to Quebec where he taught at the seminary there. While in Quebec, he attempted to establish a religious house with some of the priests he met in Rome, but when his plan did not evolve, he returned to Boston where he had made an impression during his earlier visit.

Upon his return, de Bourbourg briefly served the Diocese of Boston in an administrative capacity, but soon decided to return to Europe. Sources differ on the reason, but what is evident is that he so impressed Bishop Fitzpatrick that he was named vicar-general with the hope that he would advocate for the diocese in Europe, particularly with the missionary societies.

At the same time, there was much discussion about the best way to restructure the Diocese of Boston. The diocese still encompassed all of New England, and in the previous seven years alone had grown by 47 churches to a total of 95, much too large for one bishop to properly oversee.

When de Bourbourg arrived in Europe with the title of vicar-general, he was understood to have more authority than intended by Bishop Fitzpatrick, and was asked to advise on the restructuring. He is believed to have suggested that he be appointed the bishop of a diocese encompassing Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and based in either Bangor or Burlington, but he later denied any knowledge of this proposed plan.

Meanwhile, word reached Bishop Fitzpatrick that de Bourbourg was "meddling in high affairs," and via a contact abroad, was able to inform Rome that any suggestions offered by de Bourbourg were of his own making. What happened next is unclear, only that his suggestions were not implemented, and instead two new dioceses were created for Maine and New Hampshire, based in Portland and Burlington, respectively.

This restructuring left the Diocese of Boston with 63 churches, Portland with 24, and Burlington with eight. Included in the discussion was the prospect of elevating the diocese of Boston to an archdiocese, but Bishop Fitzpatrick advocated against it, leaving the honor of being named the first Archbishop of Boston to his successor, John Joseph Williams, in 1875.

If there were any consequences for de Bourbourg it is not clear. Interestingly, during his short time in Boston he read William Hickling Prescott's "The Conquest of Mexico" and became interested in pre-Hispanic South American cultures. He studied the subject at the Vatican Library for two years before being assigned chaplain to the French embassy in Mexico City in 1848, and made use of the National Library there to study codices. He held several subsequent assignments in Central America where he furthered his knowledge of the Quiche language spoken by the Mayan people of Guatemala. He published a number of books during his lifetime including "Popol-Vuh" in 1861, a French translation of the sacred book of the Quiche Indians. He passed away in Nice, France, in 1874.

The letter itself discusses de Bourbourg's journey from Boston to New York, Liverpool, France, and, finally, Rome. He discusses some of the events happening there and reminiscences on his time in Boston, among other topics.

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