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Oblates come to Lowell to serve French Canadian Catholics

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... Father Vandenberghe traveled with Bishop Williams to view the site, but expressed some concern about the ability of the small French Canadian population there to sustain a parish of its own.

Thomas
Lester

In the papers of Archbishop John J. Williams resides a letter from Father Florent Vandenberghe, OMI, provincial superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate based in Montreal, dated Jan. 14, 1868. The letter references a meeting the two had in Burlington, Vermont, the previous month, and the prospect of the Oblates establishing a parish in Lowell to serve the French-speaking Canadian Catholics residing there.

Father Vandenberghe and Bishop Williams met in Burlington, Vermont, while attending the dedication of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. For some time Bishop Williams desired to create a parish in Lowell to serve the French-speaking population, and bring additional religious orders into the Diocese of Boston; while in Burlington he was introduced to Father Vandenberghe who could help him achieve both. The Oblates had arrived in Montreal in 1841, and since that time achieved much success with their missionary work in Canada, and had even expanded into the Springfield, Massachusetts, area.

In his letter, written in French, Father Vandenberghe reveals that he has written to the superior general in Europe informing him of their conversation and believes they will receive his support. He also indicates that, for the moment, he only has two priests who will be able to depart in April, at the earliest, after waiting out the winter. Finally, he presents some conditions necessary for the Oblates to operate a parish in Lowell.

Following their conversation in Burlington, Bishop Williams had also been active, and found a former Unitarian Church on Lee Street, Lowell, for which he entered negotiations, hoping it would be the future site of the Oblates' parish. In March, when conditions improved, Father Vandenberghe traveled with Bishop Williams to view the site, but expressed some concern about the ability of the small French Canadian population there to sustain a parish of its own. This prompted Bishop Williams to propose that the Oblates establish two parishes, the second an English-speaking parish, to which Father Vandenberghe agreed.

As indicated in the letter, he sent two priests, Fathers Andre Garin and Father Lucien Lagier, who arrived in Lowell on April 18, 1868. Within a few short weeks, the Canadian Catholics contributed enough money for a down payment on the Lee Street Church, and dedicated it to St. Joseph on May 3, the city's first French-speaking parish. The second parish agreed to was temporarily located at St. John Chapel, initially part of St. John Hospital, and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. In November, Father Vandenberghe arrived and helped establish a house for the Oblates in the vicinity as well.

St. Joseph would be expanded several times in the following years, but never proved adequate for the burgeoning French-speaking population in the Lowell area. To solve this problem Father Garin hoped to build a new church, and in 1887 purchased land on Merrimack Street on which to do so, the eventual site of St. John the Baptist, dedicated on Dec. 13, 1896.

Sadly, Father Garin would not live to see its completion, having died the year before on Feb. 16, 1895. At the time of his arrival in 1868, there were 1,200 French-speaking Catholics in Lowell, and by the time his new church was completed, it was responsible for serving close to 20,000. Some relief would come with the establishment of a second French-speaking parish, St. Louis de France, in 1904, and three more would follow in the ensuing decades.

Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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