Founded in 1873, St. Leonard’s Church is the first Roman Catholic Church in New England built by Italian immigrants. Located in the historic North End of Boston, the church building sits at the corner of Hanover and Prince Streets on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
Before the year 1870 there were very few Italians living in the city of Boston. However, in the succeeding years the number of Italians arriving in Boston increased dramatically. Though they had left home and country to find material success in a new world, these people, descendents of a nation that has always been loyal to the church, could not and would not be neglected spiritually. Hence, there arose a great necessity of attending to the spiritual needs of these people, who were complete strangers to the language and customs of this new land.
In 1873, Archbishop Williams of Boston called upon the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province, many of whom recently arrived in the United States themselves, to minister to the spiritual needs of the rising Italian immigrant population in Boston. In the three years before, the population of Italians in Boston rose dramatically. The newly arrived immigrants were a strong presence in New England that could not be neglected spiritually.
Fr. Angelo Conterno, OFM, was the first pastor of the newly founded parish preceded a year later in February 1874, by Fr. Joachim Guerrini, OFM. The cramp quarters of a church on nearby North Bennet Street, offered masses in Italian and Portuguese for the growing diversity of Christians, while the blueprints were set to establish a church for the blossoming Italian population in the North End.
On a cool November day, during the Feast of St. Leonard’s two years later, a lot of land situated on Prince Street measuring a mere seventy four by thirty feet and purchased for the grand sum $9,000.00 was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Williams. The foundations were laid for the first Italian parish in the United States.
But the advent of even more immigrants searching for fortune and a better life in American pushed the small church to its limits and the need for an even larger church became reluctantly apparent. In 1885, the work for even a larger church began. While the new land was cleared and the upper church built, the basement of the new church served to fill the spiritual needs of close to close to 20,000 Italian Christians; the humble foundations serving as a spiritual foundation to the growing community of wide-eyed new arrivals and hard-working, struggling immigrants who had recently made America their home. In November 1899, the current upper church, including the famed St. Anthony Shrine, was dedicated along with the friary on North Bennet Street. and The upper church was built at the cost of $160,000.00 and was dedicated in November 1899.