Cummins Highway is named for Roslindale's first pastor

On March 1, 1929, at 3 p.m., a crowd of over 5,000 people gathered at the intersection adjacent to Sacred Heart Church in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood. They were there to dedicate the recently completed Cummins Highway, on which the church stood, and which was being named in honor of Father John F. Cummins, the first and, at the time, current pastor of the parish.

Father John Cummins was born in Charlestown on Sept. 17, 1852. He attended local schools before proceeding to Boston College, the College of the Holy Cross, and then studying for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Provincial Seminary in Troy, New York. He was ordained in Albany on Dec. 18, 1875, and returned to his home diocese, where for about the next 20 years, he served in parishes, including St. Mary of the Annunciation, Cambridge; Sts. Peter and Paul, South Boston; St. Thomas Aquinas, Jamaica Plain; St. Peter, Plymouth; and St. John the Evangelist, Hopkinton; before being assigned to Sacred Heart, Roslindale.

The "History of the Archdiocese of Boston" states that around 1885 Catholics in Roslindale first requested a priest be assigned to their neighborhood and purchased land intended for a church on Poplar Street, but no additional funds were forthcoming and so progress stalled for several years. By 1891, there was renewed enthusiasm, and on March 15 of that year, a larger, more suitable, lot was purchased on the corner of Brown Avenue and Ashland Street, and the following year, work began on a new church.

At Christmas that same year, 1892, Father Thomas Magennis, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Jamaica Plain, which also served Roslindale Catholics, began celebrating Mass in a tent setup on the Poplar Street lot. Parishioners suffered from the harsh cold during these winter months, and at times intolerable heat within the tent during the summer. It was during the following summer that Father Magennis recommended a new parish be created, based at the new church being constructed, and on July 7, 1893, Sacred Heart, Roslindale, was established with Father Cummins named its first pastor.

Father Cummins later reflected on these early months, stating, "the Catholics (at the time) were scanty in number and slender in means. We started in a rude tent for our church -- very primitive to some people and to some, very poetic -- but I was glad later on when I sold the property and moved into the basement of our present church." For those risking the cold and heat every Sunday, their suffering would be short-lived, as by Christmas of 1893 enough progress had been made on the lower church for its use by parishioners.

Still, Father Cummins needed to raise funds to complete the rest of the building, and the parish became known for its annual barbecues to that effect. In each of the 10 years they were held at the Apollo Gardens on Amory Street in Roxbury, they included concession tables, games, speeches, and dances, but the highlight was always the roasting of an entire ox which could weigh up to 1,400 pounds.

The church was finally completed so that then Archbishop William O'Connell was able to dedicate the new Sacred Heart Church on June 5, 1910, a day Father Cummins called the greatest in the parish's history.

In the years between being named pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and the highway dedication, Father Cummins showed a great energy which benefited the local community. Part of his duties were to care for smallpox victims in Boston and patients of the Boston Insane Hospital.

At the outbreak of the Spanish American War (April 21 to Dec. 10, 1898), he was elected to deliver a speech at a large meeting at Faneuil Hall, urging the formation of an Irish regiment in Boston. When the war ended, he was selected by Archbishop John J. Williams to serve the returning veterans suffering from typhoid fever.

Father Cummins is also credited with encouraging the Knights of Columbus to form a Roslindale Council. Heeding his call, four men, already members, received a charter and enrolled 54 inaugural members of the Archbishop John J. Williams Knights of Columbus Council #1308, established April 26, 1908.

And under his leadership, a parish school was also founded in 1916, St. Francis Xavier School, staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, New Jersey.

The Cummins Highway came as the result of widening Ashland Street, on which Sacred Heart Church stood, and Oakland Street. At the cost of about $750,000, the streets had been widened to 60 to 80 feet at various points, stretching from Washington Street in Roslindale to River Street in Mattapan.

On Feb. 20, 1929, Mayor Malcolm Nichols announced that the Board of Street Commissioners had approved the name "Cummins Highway" for the new road. At a meeting of the commissioners the previous day, 60 people had joined to advocate for the new highway to be named after Father Cummins; in addition, they received telegrams from numerous dignitaries, including Sen. David I. Walsh, Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Edwards, and former Mayor James M. Curley.

The ceremony to dedicate the new highway started where Cummins Highway met with Washington Street, where a parade featuring 1,500 veterans of WWI and the Spanish American War, children from three local primary schools, led by a company of U.S. Marines and the John T. Fallon Post V.F.W. Band of Roslindale, were received by Mayor Nichols and Father Cummins as they proceeded to the intersection of the Cummins Highway and Brown Avenue.

Highlights of the dedication ceremony, as noted at the time, included a singing performance by 500 pupils from the St. Francis Xavier School, which Father Cummins had helped establish, and a concert by the V.F.W. Band.

Among the many speakers was Father Cummins himself, who stated, "This is a historic day in the annals of Roslindale. With all the intensity of my soul, Mr. Mayor, I thank you for unveiling this first sign on the new highway."

Mayor Nichols then presented him with the quill used to sign the act officially naming the new highway, to which he said: "I gladly accept from you, Mr. Mayor, this precious and historic quill. This quill has officially made perpetual the name of this great highway. I accept it as a soldier in the name of all my comrades-in-arms. I accept it as a citizen in the name not only of our beloved community of Roslindale, but in the name of the people of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

He concluded by blessing the highway and all who traveled upon it.

The Cummins Highway was proclaimed to be the first thoroughfare in Boston to be called a "highway," and one of the few roads named for a person still living. Father Cummins served the parish for four more years after the dedication, until his death on March 20, 1933, at the age of 81, after suffering a long illness.

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.