The History of Saint Leonard of Port Maurice Parish

Saint Leonard Parish reflects the waves of immigrants that came to the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries taking up residence in port cities and creating ethnic enclaves such as Boston’s North End. The varied collection of churches that make up Saint Leonard Parish is a result of parishes that evolved out of particular ethnic groups with a church reflecting their country of origin. Saint Leonard Parish today incorporates the former parishes of Sacred Heart, Saint Stephen’s, and Saint Mary’s as well as Saint John Catholic Elementary School.

Saint Leonard Church

Founded in 1873, St. Leonard’s is a Roman Catholic Church in New England built by Italian immigrants. In the year 1873, Archbishop Williams of Boston called upon the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province to minister to the spiritual needs of Italian immigrants of Boston. Fr. Angelo Conterno, OFM, was the first Franciscan to work in the new harvest. Two years later, the foundation was laid for the first Italian parish in the United States. In 1885, the work of clearing the land bought for the site of the new church began. In November of 1891 church’s basement opened for public worship, after having been blessed by Archbishop Williams. The number of parishioners at that time was close to 20,000. The upper church was built at a cost of $160,000.00 and dedicated in November 1899. At the same time, the friary on North Bennet Street was also built. During the years after 1910, restoration of the upper church was undertaken and the Franciscan Sisters moved into the convent on 31 Prince Street. The influenza epidemic of 1917-1919 had left many Italian children in the Boston area orphaned. Fr. Anthony Sousa, who was Pastor of Saint Leonard’s at that time, founded the Home for Italian Children in Jamaica Plain which remains even to this day.

As a result of the reconfiguration that took place within the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004, St. Leonard’s became the Parish encompassing Sacred Heart Italian Church as well as Saint Stephen’s Church, which remains under the Missionary Society of Saint James the Great, Saint Mary’s Chapel, and Saint John Catholic Elementary School; together they form Saint Leonard Parish.

Sacred Heart Church

A house of worship has stood in North Square, America’s oldest public square, since 1649. The first of two Congregational churches burned to the ground in 1676; the second in 1770. The present building was constructed in 1833 and for 38 years served as a Seamen’s Bethel where the Methodist Minister Rev. Edward T. Taylor preached; his name became a household word among the seamen of his time. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, made frequent visits to the Bethel; Charles Dickens also visited to hear him preach. Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson eulogized Rev. Taylor’s passing. In 1847, the Boston Port Society, the original owners of the Bethel, erected the Mariners House on the opposite side of the square, which remains a seamen house even to the present day.

In 1884, a group of Italian immigrants forming the Saint Mark Society, purchased the building.  In 1888,  it was called the Sacred Heart by Archbishop Williams and entrusted to the Scalabrini missionaries who came to America to minister to Italian immigrants. Sacred Heart Italian Church was the first church in Boston under the Congregation of Saint Charles Boromeo, whose Scalabrini Fathers staffed the church from the time of its opening in 1889 till 2004.

Hundreds of thousands of faithful have benefited from the services offered by the Sacred Heart Church. On special occasions, the majestic classic upper church with its vaulted ceiling is used.  The Nave of the upper church is an impressive space with marble columns supporting its magnificent fresco-ed ceiling.

The smaller devotional chapel, located on the ground floor, is a splendid testament to the piety and devotion of the early Italian immigrants. The chapel incorporates shrines dedicated to St. Anthony, St. Lucy, Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Therese, St. Rita, St. Jude, Poor Souls, St. Rosalie, and the Pieta.

The Scalabrini Fathers departed from Sacred Heart Church in 2004. The church is now part of the parish of Saint Leonard of Port Maurice and is ministered to by the Franciscan Fathers.

Saint Stephen’s

A church has stood in this place since 1714. The first was the Middle Street Meeting House; it served the New North Congregational Society, of which Paul Revere and his father were members. That building lasted 70 years. The Society then commissioned the celebrated architect, Charles Bulfinch, to design and build a new church. The work was completed in 1804, and it was dedicated on May 2; its bell was cast by Paul Revere. Less than a decade later, it became the Second Church, Unitarian.

In 1862, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston acquired the church and renamed it Saint Stephen’s in honor of Christianity’s first martyr. Richard Cardinal Cushing restored the church to its original Bulfinch design in 1965 as a tribute to its great Christian heritage. In 1970, the Boston Society of Architects presented its award for Historic Preservation to Cardinal Cushing in recognition of his service to the community in restoring this historic landmark.

Since 1968, Saint Stephen’s Church has been the international headquarters of the Society of St. James the Apostle, an order of diocesan priests who volunteer to serve the people of Latin America.

Saint Mary’s

It was during the year of 1847, that Bishop of Boston, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, on the last Sunday of October, introduced Father John McElroy, SJ, and his four fellow-Jesuits to the predominantly Irish congregation of Saint Mary’s parish. From the seed of Saint Mary’s grew a Province that brought the activities begun under Father McElroy in 1847 to other sections of New England. Changing demographics led to the razing of Saint Mary’s Church; a home for the elderly replaced it that contained the Chapel of Saint Mary’s.

Saint John School

In 1843 a large brick warehouse, which is today’s Saint John School, located on Moon Street, was purchased and converted to the “free church” of St. John the Baptist to meet the needs of the Irish immigrants and poor people of the city. In 1862, the congregation of St. John the Baptist moved to St. Stephen’s Church. The Moon St. property was then used as a Chapel and a Hall for parish functions. In 1872 St. Stephen’s sold the property for $18,712. Bishop Williams sent for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from Cincinnati to open a small school; the chapel and parish hall remained.

In 1895 Saint John’s parochial school officially registered 300 boys and 500 girls many of whom were newly arrived immigrants from the south of Italy. The congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph was commissioned to Saint John School in 1911.  In 1912 the school was added to the parish of Sacred Heart and the first commencement under the Sisters of St. Joseph took place on June 22 with 12 graduates. A kindergarten class began in 1937.  In 1946 the third-floor auditorium and tower of the school were removed. During the 1950s a new wave of immigrants arrived in the North End. Young families were able to support three local parochial schools that included Saint John’s. In 1976 Saint Mary’s school closed due to demographic changes in the city’s population, Saint John school welcomed the new students. In 1982 Saint Anthony’s school closed; once again, Saint John’s welcomed the new students and became the only parochial school in the North End as well as Boston proper. Saint John‘s celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995. It entered the new millennium embracing the latest technology while retaining traditional educational values. In 2004 Sacred Heart Parish merged with Saint Leonard Parish to become one Parish. In 2010 Saint John School celebrated 115 years in existence.