Bicentennial lecture offers perspective on Boston’s bishops

Thomas O’Connor, a professor emeritus and university historian at Boston College, delivers his lecture “Pastoral Profiles: Bishops of Boston” Sept. 10 at the Boston Public Library. Pilot photo/ Neil W. McCabe

BOSTON -- One of Boston’s preeminent historians presented a Sept. 10 lecture, “Pastoral Profiles: Bishops of Boston,” at the Boston Public Library, sponsored by the Archdiocesan Bicentennial Committee.

“I chose the subject because I wanted to make it more accessible to a general audience. I was glad we got a good crowd of both lay people and clergy tonight,” said Thomas O’Connor, a professor emeritus and university historian at Boston College. He is the author of 16 books, including “Civil War Boston,” “The Boston Irish” and “Boston: A to Z.”

One member of the audience, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, the ninth bishop of Boston, was the subject of part of the lecture. “It is remarkable that in 200 years, there have only been nine residential bishops in the diocese. I was grateful his discussion of my tenure was very brief,” the cardinal said afterward.

Also in the audience were Bishop John A. Dooher, the bishop of the South Region; Robert Johnson-Lally, the archdiocesan archivist; members of the archdiocese’s Bicentennial Committee; and Father William T. Schmidt, the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Stoneham. Father Schmidt, also an historian, wrote a chapter on the history of the parishes of the Boston Church for O’Connor’s next book about the history of the city.

O’Connor said the history of the Church of Boston was shaped by the unique personalities that each bishop brought to the era they led. Sometimes their personality was suited to the era, and sometimes it was not.

In the colonial era, the Protestant leaders of the colony restricted the growth and sway of the Church by outlawing priests, he said. One law stated that if a priest was caught in the colony a second time, the punishment was death. “They thought if we take away the priests, they won’t come here, and it almost worked.”

Things changed when the French came to the aid of the colonists during the American Revolution, he said. French ships made frequent port calls in Boston and each French ship had its own chaplain. When those French priests came ashore, the Catholics of the city would seek them out.

The city’s first prelate, Bishop Jean-Louis Cheverus, disagreed with Rome’s decision to create the diocese at all, O’Connor said. Bishop Cheverus felt the Church was too small to justify its elevation and it should remain part of the Diocese of New York. “He wrote to Rome: ‘I have one church and three priests.’”

O’Connor said Rome’s decision was based on the geography and an eye to the future. Rome recognized that the new diocese, which included all of New England, needed to be separate from New York, so it could grow on its own.

In the recent history of the archdiocese, its bishops have had to make the transition from leading a harassed minority Church to leading the dominant institution in the state to leading a Church somewhere in between, he said.

Cardinal William H. O’Connell promoted a strident Church that insisted on its rights and acceptance. In contrast, when Cardinal Richard J. Cushing succeeded Cardinal O’Connell in 1944, he inherited a Church secure in its place and was able to promote a sense of community with other religions, he said.

In the 1960s, when Cardinal Cushing was asked if he opposed Protestant Televangelist Billy Graham bringing his crusade to Boston College, he said. “Cushing said: ‘Let him speak. He is only going to be talking about God.’”

The bishops also differed in their management styles, O’Connor said. Archbishop John J. Williams was considered too soft by many. After he named a pastor, he would rarely interfere with his running of the parish. This was different from the style of Cardinal O’Connell, who succeeded him in 1907. “O’Connell found an archdiocese full of fiefdoms run by men without control or direction.”

Cardinal O’Connell centralized the archdiocese and required all expenditures be proposed in writing and approved by him alone, in writing, he said.

Johnson-Lally, speaking from intimate knowledge of the archdiocesan archives, said by far the largest amount of paperwork and records in the archives were generated during the O’Connell years.

While Cardinal Cushing kept the archdiocese centralized, O’Connor said he did not share his predecessor’s view of paperwork. “We have all heard the stories of a man coming up to Cardinal Cushing at an event and handing him a check, and the cardinal would stuff it in his pocket. Later at the same event, a priest from the missions would come up to the cardinal and say, ‘Eminence, we have no food.’ Then, Cushing would reach into his pocket and give him the check.”

Nobody was stealing, he said. But, not all of the expenditures or receipts were recorded on a spreadsheet.

Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, who succeeded Cardinal Cushing in 1970, was the most polarizing of all of the bishops of Boston, according to O’Connor. In his research interviews with clergy and laity, no other bishop generated the sense of anger directed at Cardinal Medeiros, whom many felt chose to remain an outsider. “On the other hand I found many clergy and laity who were absolutely enamored with him. They greatly admired his grace, piety and his great courage.”

O’Connor said there will be a historical revision of the tenure of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who succeeded Cardinal Medeiros in 1984, but it will take time. First, the emotions related to his handling of the sexual abuse by priests will have to settle. Then, there will be an opportunity to look at the good things he brought to the archdiocese.

“I have a theory that if Law had taken a different approach, like an approach that Cushing would have taken, things would have turned out better,” he said. “Cushing would have gone out to the parishes and told the people what had happened, that it was his fault and that he needed their help fixing the problem.”

Instead, Cardinal Law denied the problem, resisted taking responsibility and dragged his feet when there were people willing to help, he said. Now, the Church is in a more difficult position because of those decisions.

O’Connor said that Cardinal O’Malley, during his relatively brief tenure thus far, is still grappling with the repercussions of those decisions.

In his closing remarks, O’Connor said as he researched the history of the archdiocese, he was struck by the idea that the Church of Boston has come full circle. In the beginning, it was the lay people who built a Church and then sought out priests to minister to them. Now, as the number of priests declines, the archdiocese is relying again on the laity to build the Church and seeking priests.

Next, the Boston Public Library is hosting a talk by Archivist Robert Johnson-Lally, which will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24, called “Researching Church Records for Family History.”

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