Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Building & Burning Church: Foxboro 1859-1862

The first Catholic Masses were celebrated at Michael Rafferty home located on Granite Street near the intersection of Union Street. and Union Street. On November 30, 1844, Michael Rafferty married Mary Lyons, the daughter of James and Mary Lyons. James and Mary are buried in St. Augustines Cemetery in South Boston, the first Catholic cemetery consecrated in diocese.

In 1853 the number of Irish Catholic laborers and factory operatives associated with the straw hat industry resulted in the diocesan status as a mission station and a visiting priest. The growing numbers celebrated in the Richard Gorman house located on Central street near the intersection of Leonard Street. By 1858 the growing local Catholics population required a meeting hall to gather for Mass. For the next several years Catholic Masses were celebrated in the Odd Fellows Hall, located in the Friendship Block located at the corner of Granite and Main Streets, the Cocasset House (formerly on the site of the present day Benjamin Franklin Bank) and also the new town hall completed in 1857.

The spiritual and secular life of Catholics at this time centered about the "Mother Churches" which were erected throughout the diocese. This era witnessed the erection of primitive churches established in advantageous parts of the diocese , especially in areas that satisfied the three criteria to become a parish: the availability of a priest; the geographical situation, and the number of souls to support a priest and church. In 1859, the number of Catholics in Foxboro and the several contiguous towns satisfied all three conditions.

On May 2, 1859 Bishop John Fitzpatrick designated the Catholic community a parish under the spiritual care of Fr. Michael X. Carroll. The new Foxboro parish included the Catholics residing in Mansfield, South Walpole, Franklin, Wrentham Center; North Wrentham (Norfolk) and the "Furnace" area of south Easton.

On July 19, 1859 James D. McAvoy conveyed to Fr. Carroll the property on which the first church would be built. The property, then located at the end of Church Street for Carpenter Street did not exist at this time, is the present location of the Knights of Columbus Hall
The 1860 Federal Census records that Fr. Carroll was twenty-nine years of age. He boarded on Granite Street and was attended by a twenty-three year old male servant named William Quinn and a twenty-five year old domestic servant named Margaret Doherty.

In a letter dated January 8, 1861, Fr. Carroll informed Bishop John Fitzpatrick of the completion of the church. In the same letter he also expressed concerns for the future of the parish. He wrote, "The task, my Lord, which you sent me to do is now accomplished. I have built a church in Foxboro where they needed one badly.... but I feel that the poor people are few and poor indeed in the true sense of the word and such...As for the children scattered as they are I have now prepared them for their first communion, but I consider the weather too cold to bring them from the distances as I wish them all to make their first communion in the Church... You will hardly believe me my Lord, when I tell you that I had but two baptisms since October 8th last."
A broadside preserved at the Archdiocese of Boston Archives advertised the first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Foxboro. "The Irish Catholics of Foxboro, Mansfield, Wrentham, Franklin and Walpole will celebrate the Anniversary of St. Patrick's Day, On Sunday, March 17, 1861. The procession will be formed at the Pastor's residence and will march, two deep, to their beautiful new Church, to witness the first communion of their children.... The Mass, which will be one of Mozart's, will be sung by the Pastor, who will preach the children, on the subject matter of the Holy Eucharist. There will be a Grand Concert given at 6 o'clock in the Evening, all the proceeds of which will be taken up to defray a part of the Church debt. The Rev. M. Carroll will deliver the Panagerie of Ireland's Sainted Person... At the conclusion, there will be Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament."

The excitement and confidence of the fledgling Catholic parish was not to last. On February 23, 1862 the new church was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. The scene of devastation was described in an anonymous letter from Foxboro to the Boston Pilot newspaper. "Mr. Editor - It is my painful duty to send to you this sad announcement. The new and neat Catholic Church, recently built by Fr. Carroll, in Foxboro; was totally destroyed by fire on Saturday night, February 23rd. The fire broke out between 12 and 1 A.M., and in less than three hours the building lay in a heap of ruins. But, Mr. Editor, the scene, though mournful, was truly painful when Fr. Carroll arrived. The grief depicted in his care-troubled countenance can be better conceived than described. As there are no fire engines in the village of Foxboro, there he stood among the multitude, only to gaze with sorrow on that which he could not save. The origin of the fire is unknown. The building was a frame with brick foundation and was partially insured."

Interestingly, town records contradict one important fact of the anonymous writer. At the time of the conflagration, Foxboro actually had a private, "subscription only" fire department. In other words, if you didn't subscribe to the department, the membership had the option to take a vote whether to fight the fire or not. Since the eye witness reported that the fire burned for three hours and that no fire engines attended the fire, it can be surmised that the membership of the private fire department, whose equipment was housed only 500 yards away, voted not to report to the fire. Conjecture or not, exactly two weeks after the fire, on March 7th, 1862, the town voted to organize a municipal fire department. The ownership of the engine house, engine, hose reels, and hoses was conveyed to the town and the fire engine company, known today as the Foxboro Fire Department was established.


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