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St. Stephen Church in the North End celebrates bicentennial

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Posted: 10/8/2004

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The 200th anniversary of the erection of St. Stephen Church on Hanover Street in the North End was remembered last weekend with two events. On Sept. 22, a celebration took place at the church. Welcoming all was Father Robert Thomas, Director of the St. James Missionary Society whose headquarters are located at the church. Robert Johnson-Lally, head archivist for the archdiocese delivered a fine lecture on the history of the church. Music was provided by Annette Betanski, soloist and Greg de Bourghnecht of the North End Music & Performing Arts Center. Refreshments and a birthday cake was provided in the foyer. The following day’s vigil Mass was offered in thanksgiving for the occasion.

St. Stephen Church was originally the New North Congregational Church. Boston born Charles Bulfinch, the nation’s premier architect of the time, received the commission to design a church to replace a previous church at Hanover and Clark Street in 1802. Bulfinch was also the architect of Boston’s first Holy Cross Cathedral on Franklin Street. Both buildings were similar in design and reflected ideas gathered while traveling through Europe, especially Italy. In 1814, the church was renamed the Second Unitarian Church.

During the Civil War era, the Unitarian congregation declined as the immigrant population of the North End swelled. Father John J. Williams, administrator at the time and later Archbishop of Boston purchased the church on Sept. 26, 1862 for $35,000. He dedicated the church to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr on Dec. 2, 1862.

In the years since 1862, the church has survived a major fire in the spring of 1897 and again in September 1929 and undergone numerous renovations. By the mid 1960s the neglect of the structure came to the attention of Cardinal Richard Cushing and in 1964, the church closed for a year-long restoration.

Pilot staff writer George E. Ryan reported in the July 31, 1965 issue: “On July 30, culminating more than a year of painstaking craftsmanship and an even longer period of careful planning, the exquisite Bulfinch designed church of St. Stephen is restored to full parish. What this historic reopening constitutes is simply the most extensive job of restoration ever undertaken by the Archdiocese of Boston.

“St. Stephen’s, the massive building that has graced the North End’s Hanover Street for nearly two centuries, was skillfully lowered six and a half feet. Doorways and window openings were either replaced or bricked over, depending on whether or not they were included in the original Bulfinch design of 1802. Lighting fixtures were duplicated and custom-made for the project. Stairways and handrails were removed. The cupola added to and reshaped over the years, was dismantled and reconstructed according to the exact specifications of America’s first professional architect, Charles Bulfinch who also designed the Statehouse, the original unit of the Massachusetts General Hospital, and many other Boston landmarks now gone.

“St. Stephen’s is the only one of many churches designed by Bulfinch that still stands in the perennially charming city of Boston. The restoration of St. Stephen Church has been called the most significant venture of its kind in Boston Catholic history, a unique vote of confidence in the future of the Hub that effectively gives back to Boston a monument of its past that might easily have fallen into disuse and unsightly ruin.”