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Do You Know The Saint Who Gave Boston Its Name?

edgar_church_websize.jpg
An 1821 painting of the Boston Church in Lincolnshire, England by James Harrison.
Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
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171101_cur-web.mp3

Nov. 1 is All Saints Day — a day set aside for Catholics and many Protestants to honor “all of the saints, known and unknown.” Most of us, Catholic or not, probably know a saint or two — maybe St. Patrick or St. Francis of Assisi. But the vast majority of these curiously venerated men and woman toil in obscurity, from St. Anacletus, the Church’s third pope, to St. Zebinus, a 5th century Syrian hermit and teacher of monks, including Saints Maro and Polychronius, whoever they were.

But if there’s one little-known saint that should be more well-known around here, it’s St. Botolph of Thorney.

“He’s the patron saint of travelers,” said Peter Van Demark, a member of the St. Botolph Club, a private social club in the Back Bay, located — perhaps not incidentally — about a mile from St. Botolph Street.

Like me and countless owners of St. Christopher medals, you may have been under the impression that St. Christopher was the patron of travelers. 

“Well there really was a St. Botolph,” said Van Demark. “There really wasn’t a St. Christopher. He was a fiction.”

Not much is known about St. Botolph. We’re not even 100 percent sure exactly where or when he was born. It was around 620, somewhere in Great Britain.

“Possibly in Kent, possibly in East Anglia or possibly in Scotland,” said Van Demark.  

What we do know is that he was a Benedictine monk who traveled England in the 7th Century, preaching Christianity. We have a sense of where he traveled, because many of the communities of Christians that he established named their churches after him, and there’s a whole bunch of St. Botolph’s churches throughout England. But the biggest, most important of these churches lies on the southeast coast.

“It’s a parish church, but it’s so big it looks like a cathedral,” said Van Demark. “It’s called the stump because its tower doesn’t go to a point.”

So, what does any of this have to do with us?

Well that big church is in Boston, Lincolnshire — a place so important to the Puritans that they named a town here after it. And crucially, it’s believed today that the word "Boston" itself is a contraction of that place’s original name: Botolph’s Town.

“Nobody can say that Boston is St. Botolph’s Town, but people do the research, and because Boston has a church named after St. Botolph that makes a very strong connection," Van Demark said. 

St. Botolph may have given Boston its name, but he’s no home-grown saint. In fact, less than a handful of the more than 10,000 Catholic saints were born in the U.S., none of them in New England — though Sister Mary Joseph isn’t so sure about that. She believes one has: Mother Mary Alphonsa, who was born in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1851 as Rose Hawthorne. You might have heard of Rose’s father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote — among other things — the Scarlet Letter.

“We’re the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne,” said Sister Mary Joseph. “Our work is to care for people who are terminally ill with cancer.”

Rose Hawthorne grew up in New England and Europe, married writer George Parsons Lathrop at age 19, and —along with her husband — converted to Catholicism in the late 1800s.

rose_hawthorne_lathrop.jpg
Mary Alphonsa, Mother Superior of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.
Scanned from "To Myself a Stranger: A Biography of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop" via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

“It was big news,” said Sister Mary Joseph. “It was in all the papers. The secular papers and the religious papers.”

But their marriage was a tumultuous affair. Their only child, a daughter, died of diphtheria at the age of 5 and Lathrop struggled with alcoholism. They separated in 1895. Three years later, he died.  

“So, she was 45 and she was looking for something to do with her life,” said Sister Mary Joseph. “She always had this sense that she wanted to be of use.”

Hawthorne found her calling in New York City, where she was moved by the plight of poor cancer patients. At the time, they were being quarantined, often in terrible conditions.

“A fire was lighted in her heart, she said, to devote her life to those poor people diagnosed with cancer who really had no one else or no place to go,” said Sister Mary Joseph.

Hawthorne took a nursing course at the New York Cancer hospital, moved to a tenement building on the lower east side, and began her work — free of charge.   

“She said, ‘I wanted to be of the poor and for the poor,’” said Sister Mary Joseph. “She just started taking care of anyone who needed her.”

Hawthorne took her vows as a Catholic nun and, in 1900, founded her own order. In 2013, the church officially named Hawthorne a “Servant of God,” the first in a four-step process to Catholic sainthood. Currently, Hawthorne’s life is under review at the Vatican in Rome.

“Eventually, we hope we’ll declare that she did live a life of heroic virtue,” explained Sister Mary Joseph. 

That’s step two — veneration. Step three, beatification, would require proof that a miracle had been performed by Hawthorne, or in her name.

“I don’t want to say too much about it — kind of at this early stage. But there is one where we believe she did intervene and save the life of a baby,” said Sister Mary Joseph.

To move from beatification to sainthood, canonization, is a long road, and would literally take, among other things, another miracle. Perhaps impossible for you or me but, then again, most of us are no saints.

As always, I want to hear about what has piqued your curiosity lately. Email me at CuriosityDesk@wgbhnews.org and let me know. I might just look into it for you. 

An earlier version of this article described All Saints Day as a Catholic holy day and has since been updated. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and a number of other Protestant denominations also observe All Saints Day. 

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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