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In Charlestown, 175 years of St. Mary Parish

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Posted: 11/7/2003

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On Aug. 15, 1825, Bishop Benedict Fenwick came to Charlestown to examine and approve a site for a new church. A committee was formed 10 days later to begin fundraising and planning. On Oct. 3, the bishop came again to lay the cornerstone of a church under the patronage of Our Lady.

The dedication of the church took place on May 10, 1829. Thus began St. Mary Parish, the first to be established as an offshoot of the territory of the Franklin Street cathedral. At the time, Charlestown was home to a growing immigrant population from Ireland, as well as workers who made a living at the Charlestown Navy Yard and in the glass industry in East Cambridge. Up until 1842, when the borders of Charlestown were finalized, St. Mary Parish included areas as far away as present-day Woburn, Malden, and Medford.

In honor of the 175th year of the parish, past and present parishioners of St. Mary’s gathered for a Mass of Thanksgiving on the afternoon on Oct. 5. Principal celebrant was Father Paul Coughlin, who became the eleventh pastor on Jan. 21, 2002. Among priests attending were two previous pastors, Father Robert Boyle, pastor from 1974 to 1984, and Father James Canniff, pastor from 1984 to 2001. A banquet followed at Montvale Plaza in Stoneham. A jubilee book detailing the history of the parish was dedicated in memory of John Walsh. A life-long parishioner, Walsh was a faithful presence in parish affairs until his death last July 8 at the age of 88.

St. Mary Church stands on Warren Street, bounded by Winthrop and Soley Streets. The church, a magnificent piece of art and architecture, was a great accomplishment of Msgr. John McMahon, pastor from 1881 to 1937. Archbishop John Williams blessed the cornerstone on October 29, 1887 and dedicated the church on Oct. 2, 1892. A solemn consecration took place on May 28, 1899. The church was designed by noted architect Patrick Keeley in the Tudor Gothic style. The interior, with its stained glass windows depicting the story of the Virgin Mary as the agent of redemption, is one of the loveliest in the archdiocese and provides an education in religion and art.

Other accomplishments of Msgr. McMahon included the opening of St. Mary School in 1902, under the tutelage of the Sisters of St. Joseph, acquiring a rectory at One Monument Square, and establishing a convent and Women’s Club. In its heyday, St. Mary Parish included eight buildings.

A shift in population in Charlestown has affected the vitality of Charlestown’s three parishes today. St. Mary School closed in 1973. In 1993, a combined school, supported by St. Mary, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Catherine Parishes, opened as the Charlestown Catholic Elementary School. Declining enrollment led to the school’s closing last June. The three parishes today collaborate in preparing youngsters for Confirmation. One succesful venture is the Charlestown Young Adults Group. Father Paul McCarthy, parochial vicar at St. Mary’s in 1997, helped found the group, which provides opportunities for Christian fellowship and charitable works for young people.

The only priest in the parish today, Father Coughlin resides temporarily at St. Francis of Assisi Rectory in Medford. The rectory on Monument Square was recently sold and plans are underway to redesign the lower church into a parish center complex. Father Coughlin looks forward to a visit by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley sometime in the future as the parish celebrates 175 years of service to the Catholic community in Charlestown.