Tuesday, January 06, 2009

To Be Catholic: St. Mary’s Foxboro: A Case Study 1647-2009

I am 21st Century American Catholic and for the past 25 years I have been immersed in documenting the historical experience of Massachusetts Catholics. I began this task when I asked myself how could I devote so much of my life to an institution that I had no idea how it was transplanted to the New World, or Massachusetts, or for that matter, how did the faith come to hometown of Foxboro? What I soon learned and am continuing to learn that the historical Catholic experience is steeped in overcoming insurmountable challenges and discrimination. I am convinced that a new awareness of the historical development of what it meant to be Catholic will present the opportunity to present day Catholics to more fully understand, appreciate and be challenges by what it means to be Catholic today.

I think I can safely state that the vast majority of present day Massachusetts Catholics have no idea that prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788, Catholics were for the most part denied the inalienable right to be practicing Catholics. The civil laws and open hostility denied local Catholic access to their priests and sacred rituals.

The task of sitting down and writing a history from beginning is too overwhelming to me. What I have been doing is writing the individual stories that highlight certain eras and events. When this is complete then I hope to weave them into some sort of comprehensible tapestry that will achieve my stated goal of fostering a cultural appreciation of the past to more appreciate the present.

The Beginning 1605 - 1808

The first Catholics to set foot on what would become Massachusetts soil are attributed to the members of the 1605 explorations of the New England coast made under the auspices of the French government, with Samuel D. Champlain and Sieur de Monts as their agents. While making a map of Cape Cod they landed at what is now Stage Head, in the town of Chatham.
Several decades later, in 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established. The colony’s charter guaranteed liberty of conscience and worship for all Protestants, but banned Catholic ceremonies. The Puritans came to these shores to purify what they perceived to be 'Papist' practices and rituals of the English Anglican Church.

On May 26, 1647 an Act was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts prohibiting Jesuits, who were the only priests in North America at the time, from coming into the domain of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The 1692 Province Charter enacted under the reign of William and Mary, guaranteed liberty of conscience and worship to all Christians except papists and on June 17, 1700 the General Court passed "An Act Against Jesuits and Popish Priests."

In the midst of the French Indian War, fifteen thousand French Catholic Acadians were forced to abandoned their lands and homes in Nova Scotia. They were distributed from Maine to Georgia. Many of these Acadians were settled throughout the towns of Massachusetts. A Protestant writer at that time described them as, "Strangers, ignorant of the language spoken here, Catholics of an ancient church, without a priest, and doomed to live and die amongst men of an alien religion, who neither understood nor loved their faith; homesick for their native land beyond the bay, which they would never see, and I can hardly imagine a fate more full of tears. God give them rest."

On November 5, 1775, General George Washington forbid his soldiers the observance of the "ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope." Washington issued the order while encamped with his troops in Cambridge. It was issued in deference to his American Catholic patriots and the aid received from the Catholic countries of France and Spain. Pope’s Day was an annual event established by the Massachusetts General Court in 1665 . It was a local substitute for the English celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. The highlight of the celebration was a parade with an effigy of the Pope juxtaposed to one of the devil on a platform that was carried through the streets Boston. The climax of the parade being a bonfire in which the effigies were burned.

In 1780, in the midst of the Revolution, the Massachusetts State Constitution was ratified. The document guaranteed freedom, but it also required an oath of allegiance to hold a governmental position. The oath stipulated that office holders were not subject to the jurisdiction or authority of any "foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate." The result was that no Catholic could conscientiously take the oath.

In 1788, with the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of religion, the first public worship of a Catholic celebration of Mass took place in Boston on November 2, 1788. The Catholic community at this time consisted of only one hundred Catholics, no church and one priest in Boston.

Rev. John Thayer, a former Congregationalist minister and first notable covert to Catholicism arrived to take charge of the Boston Catholic flock. The following year in 1791 Bishop John Carroll, of Baltimore visited Boston. Governor John Hancock attended a mass as a courtesy. Bishop Carroll wrote at the time, "It is wonderful to tell what great civilities have been done to me in this town, where a few years ago a 'Popish' priest was thought to be the greatest monster in creation."

In 1801 the Massachusetts State Supreme Court declared, "Papists are only tolerated, and as long as their ministers behave well, we shall not disturb them; but let them expect no more than this."

On September 29, 1803 the first Catholic church in Boston, the Church of the Holy Cross, located on Franklin Street, was dedication. The Ionic style edifice, designed by the renowned Charles Bulfinch, was soon raised to the rank of Cathedral. For on April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VII, elevated Baltimore to an Archdiocese and established Boston as one of four suffragan dioceses in the United States. The diocese included all of New England. The pastoral statistics at this time, fifteen years after the first mass in 1788 were four priests, two churches and a Catholic population of one thousand. Reverend John Lefebvre de Cheverus, a native of Mayenne, France was consecrated as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Boston.


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