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St. Francis de Sales as Old as the Civil War

The building has changed over time, but its core remains the same.

Parishoners at St. Francis de Sales celebrated their first Mass in June of 1861, two months after the beginning of the Civil War, and just three months after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. The Mass was celebrated in the lower church since the main upper church did not officially open until the following January.

St. Francis' first Mass came at a time when the Union was being torn apart. Charlestown itself had experienced several decades of violence, when what had been a predominately Protestant town was hit with an influx of Irish Catholic immigration. Puritans had strong opposition to Catholics, to such an extent that the Catholic Ursuline Convent at the Neck was burned to the ground, and, until 1830, when a new Catholic burial ground was designated, there was no local burial place for Catholics. St Francis de Sales Church was built on land adjoining the cemetery.

Named for the patron saint of authors, journalists and writers, St. Francis de Sales Church has served the Charlestown Catholic community for 150 years.  There have been eight pastors. Father Dan Mahoney, who also serves as Chief Chaplain for the Boston Fire Department, has been pastor for the last 34 years.

The parish no longer includes an elementary school, and the nuns are gone, but the church still hosts CCD classes and Mass is said every day of the week. The church bells ring every hour and you can see the steeple on the hill from a good distance away.

One can only wonder what that first Mass was like. Possibly, Father George Hamilton, the parish’s first pastor, said the Mass. Or protocol may instead have required that Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick, who officiated at the cornerstone rites two years earlier, be the main celebrant.

  • Where is it? At the top of the hill at 303 Bunker Hill Street
  • When was it built?  1859-1861
  • Who built it? Patrick Keely (1816-1896) was the architect. Keely was a prolific Irish-American builder and architect of more than 200 Roman Catholic Churches. He also designed St. Mary’s Church on Warren Street in Charlestown.
  • What was it built for and who was the first occupant? A rapid rise in Irish Catholic population in the 1850‘s created the need for another Catholic church.  
  • Why was it built? To accommodate the increase in Irish Catholic population in Charlestown. St Mary’s, which was then on Richmond Street (now Old Rutherford Avenue) was the town’s only Catholic church and had outgrown its space.
  • How was it built? Of blue stone with granite trimmings in Gothic Revival style. According to Carl Zellner’s The Churches in Charlestown St Francis de Sales Church is an excellent example of Irish church architecture, and is believed to be modeled after St. Munchen’s Church in Limerick, with its unusual square tower. The spire of St. Francis is 181 feet high, rising from a gable at the front. Inside there are rows of slender pillars and the main aisle is offset by a gallery on either side. 
  • What are the future plans for the structure? The church has undergone several reconstruction projects since 1928 when the lower church was rededicated as the Chapel of All Souls. In the 1970’s a portion of the lower church was reopened as Bishop Lawton Hall and in 1976 reconstruction of the church tower and steeple were completed.   In 2009 the parish began its 150th jubilee celebration. Of the church's web-site Father Mahoney has written “May we continue to travel together through the years ahead.”

Information for this article was compiled from various sources, including The Churches in Charlestown, An Historical Sketch by Carl Zellner; Hunnewell’s A History of Charlestown, Massachusetts; and various web-sites, including www.stfrancisdesalescharlestown.com; http://archiseek.com/2009/1827-st-munchins-church-of-ireland-limerick/ and http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g186621-d216526-Reviews-Saint_Munchin_s_Catholic_Church-Limerick_County_Limerick.html

DOTTIE NARDONE February 20, 2012 at 04:13 PM
LOVE STORIES LIKE THIS WOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE ON CHARLESTOWN PATCH.
Kathleen Whelan Giordano February 21, 2012 at 12:17 PM
So good to see you back, Helen. Keep 'em coming!
ANN HANNAN February 27, 2012 at 11:36 AM
yay, Patch's favorite writer is back! where you been Helen?
Mary Brock March 02, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Beautiful photos! Thanks for the great article. The bells are comforting. I hope they will always be there.
Mary Brock March 02, 2012 at 09:27 PM
I am wondering if you know the history of the painting that hangs to left of the altar in the upper church?
Helen O'Neil May 02, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Apparently Father MacCormack, pastor at St. Francis de Sales, purchased two paintings from the Louvre, at the end of World War I. Father Mahoney doesn't know the names of the artists, but said that the Louvre sold off some of its holdings after the destruction caused by the war. These two great paintings, of the deposition of Christ and the Annunciation, rise to the left and right of the main altar.

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