March 18, 2020, marks 200 years since the ordination of Father Patrick Byrne. Active during the formative years of the Diocese of Boston, Father Byrne was one of a few priests serving Catholics in an area encompassing all of New England, seeing him minister to Catholics in Canada, New York, Maine and Massachusetts during his 22 years as a priest.
Father Byrne was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, and is known to have arrived in Boston in 1818. Having received an education in his native country, he continued his studies and preparations for the priesthood under the tutelage of Bishop Jean Cheverus of Boston.
His first assignment came after receiving minor orders, when, in the summer of 1819, he accompanied the recently ordained Father Stephen Cailleaux who was sent to serve the Penobscot Indians residing at Old Town, Maine. This was the result of Massachusetts ceding the land to the Penobscots the previous year and providing government support for, among other things, resident religious instructors.
It is uncertain how long Father Byrne remained in Old Town, but he was back in Boston to be ordained by Bishop Cheverus on March 18, 1820. His ordination increased the number of priests serving the diocese to five, which, despite the extensive territory the diocese encompassed, Bishop Cheverus felt was adequate. He was contented, in part, because he feared a larger number of priests could not be sustained by the few and widespread Catholic population at the time.
In January of the following year, Father Byrne was sent to Chambly, Canada (near Montreal), to join Abbe Pierre Mignault who regularly ventured south to visit missions around Lake Champlain, Lake George, and throughout the State of Vermont. Father Byrne's ability to understand French seems to have factored into this decision, and he spent about a year with Abbe Mignault before returning to Boston in March 1821.
It was Bishop Cheverus' intention that after a brief respite Father Byrne would resume his assignment, but Father Cailleaux rather suddenly left his role at Old Town and Father Byrne, from his previous experience, was a natural replacement. He left Boston on June 11, 1822, accompanied by two Penobscot Indians but his stay was short lived, and he was recalled to assist at the Cathedral in Boston after only one month, assisting while the bishop was away visiting missions.
In his absence, and that of any Catholic priest, the Baptist "Society for the Benefit of the Penobscot Indians" established a school in Old Town, hoping to extend their influence among that population. At first it faltered, but soon attendance increased, and to counter this growth, Father Byrne was once again sent there in 1825.
That same year, Massachusetts ceased supporting the Penobscots, passing the responsibility to the State of Maine which did not provide similar assistance. It is likely this loss of financial support prompted Father Byrne's return to Boston and he appears to have been in residence at the cathedral when Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick arrived and was installed as the second bishop of Boston that November. He stated that there were now only three priests in the diocese, Father Byrne named as one of "two deserving but not brilliant young priests."
During his many trips between Boston and various missions, Father Byrne seems to have made stops in areas where Catholics were beginning to settle. He visited Lowell as early as August 1822 and is believed to have celebrated the first Mass in that city, baptizing one child there and eight more in Chelmsford shortly thereafter. He returned in July 1824 and again in March 1825, but the city would not be visited by another Catholic priest for two years following this last visit.
In July 1830, Father Byrne was named the first resident pastor of St. Mary, Charlestown, which had been established two years previous. Interestingly, Father Byrne baptized future Archbishop of Boston John J. Williams at the cathedral on April 28, 1822, one day after his birth. In The Pilot of May 17, 1879, Archbishop Williams revealed an ongoing friendship that developed, stating that "after Father Byrne was appointed pastor (of Saint Mary), it afforded me much pleasure ... to come and spend my leisure time at Father Byrne's house on Washington Street."
Father Byrne served as pastor of St. Mary for 13 years before being named the first resident pastor in New Bedford, but he rather unexpectedly succumbed to illness and died on Dec. 4, 1844. His remains were transported to Boston, where a funeral Mass was held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, and he was interred at St. Augustine Cemetery in South Boston.
- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.