According to the 2010 Religion Census, a study conducted every 10 years, 45 percent of Massachusetts residents consider themselves Catholic, making the Bay State one of the most heavily Catholic states in the US. This fact would surely surprise William Bradford, and the rest of the Mayflower pilgrims who first established the Commonwealth.
From parades to politics, Catholicism is such an integral part of the cultural fabric here in Massachusetts that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t always been that way. And yet, as Boston College history professor James O’Toole explains: “In the very early years of Massachusetts, Catholics were few in number and not particularly welcome.”
Not welcomed is one way to put it. Illegal would be another. Consider Massachusetts’ so-called anti-priest laws, established in the 1640s. O’Toole explains: “If a priest came in he’d be ordered out of the colony. If he came back, he’d be put in jail for a while and thrown out of the colony again and if he came back a third time he’d be hanged.”
Still, small pockets of Catholics - from French Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean – would settle throughout Massachusetts and New England.
By the 1770s, while not exactly embraced, they weren’t completely shunned either. “The revolution,” according to O’Toole, “itself has a lot to do with this. Catholics in America generally support the revolution. The revolution is conducted with the help of an alliance with France, a Catholic country. And there’s a general move in the direction of religious toleration in that period as well.”
That tolerance would be codified as law in both the US and Massachusetts Constitutions, finally making Catholicism fully legal in the Bay State.
“The first Catholic parish forms in 1789, the same year that the Constitution is adopted, there’s enough Catholics, maybe a few hundred in the city to actually have a parish church for the first time,” says O’Toole.
For well over a century, church leaders in Rome had seen America as a great unknown - missionary territory like and India and China. But with the establishment of the new nation, the Vatican, began to take more interest.
“Probably most officials in Rome have only the vaguest idea of where this America place is but they know there’s got to be some church organization that goes into this new nation.”
Rome first created a single Diocese for the whole of America, centered in Catholic Maryland. But America was big – and on the rise. On April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VIII created four new dioceses in the new world.
“One in Boston, one in New York, one in Philadelphia and the fourth one, in what I have always though of as a wrong guess about where the population would be, Bardstown, Kentucky.”
Chosen as Boston’s first bishop was a French-born missionary priest who’d been working in the area for years named Father Jean Chevrus. His territory was the whole of New England, and Chevrus spent much of his time traveling, celebrating Mass, performing sacraments, and establishing parishes. It was on the road one night that Chevrus had a chance – and momentous encounter.
“I think he’s on foot most of the way and its snowing and a sleigh stops and picks him up and carries him into Boston and the person in the sleigh is John Adams.”
Adams, like many influential Bostonians, had his suspicions about Catholics, and had not met many priests before. “But he found Chevrus to be such a cultured gentleman that it began to change Adams’ view of Catholics among other things.”
And when Chevrus built Boston’s first cathedral as the centerpiece of the new diocese. “John Adams heads the list of contributors to it and in fact gave the largest single amount – a hundred dollars.”
In his 15 years as Boston’s first bishop, Chevrus created a community and infrastructure that prepared the region for the waves of Catholic immigrants from places like Ireland, Germany, and Italy that would transform it in the coming decades. “The Catholic population really shoots up starting in the 1840s, leading to the establishment of more parishes in Boston and the rest of New England.”
Today, Boston remains an influential center for American Catholicism - for good and for bad. America’s first and only Catholic president, JFK, is from here. But the archdiocese was also the center of clergy sex abuse scandal that the church continues to grapple with. O’Toole says that two centuries on, for Chevrus’ successor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the job may be very different, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier.
“Cardinal O’Malley’s challenge is now that the church has grown into this big institution. How to maintain an institution of that size, so that it actually connect to people.”
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, first established as the diocese of Boston by Pope Pius VII, 207 years ago this week.