Tuesday, April 28, 2009

150th Anniversary, St. Mary's Foxboro: May 2, 2009

May 2nd, 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of St. Mary’s church as a parish community in the Archdiocese of Boston. The anniversary affords the parish community and town residents the opportunity to appreciate and acknowledge the sacrifices, accomplishments, and milestones of the past generations of Foxboro Catholics and their priests, and to embrace the responsibility of stewardship for future generations.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1629. At that time, the colony’s charter guaranteed liberty of conscience and worship for all Protestants, but banned Catholic ceremonies. Additionally, on May 26, 1647 and June 17, 1700, the Massachusetts General Court enacted laws banning “Jesuits and Popish Priests.” The prohibitions against Catholic priests and ceremonies remained Massachusetts law until nullified by the 1788 ratification United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Soon after, the first public worship of Mass took place in Boston on November 2nd, 1788. At this time, the local Catholic population numbered a mere one hundred members.

But the demand for manual and skilled labor to power the budding late-18th Century American Industrial Revolution, coupled with Ireland’s poverty and crop failures, resulted in waves of Irish Catholic immigrants arriving in Massachusetts. By 1830, the Catholic population had increased to 15,000. The new Catholics families in Foxboro were chiefly Irish laborers working on the construction of the Boston to Providence railroad line, mining granite in the East Foxboro quarries, and iron molders employed at General Shepherd Leach’s iron foundry in South Foxboro.

According to records, the earliest Mass celebrated in Foxboro took place in the home of Michael and Mary (Lyons) Rafferty in 1844. Mary was the daughter of James and Mary Lyons, the charges of one of the first two Catholic families to settle in Foxboro. Both James and Mary are buried alongside each other in St. Augustine’s Cemetery in South Boston, established in 1818 as the first Catholic cemetery in Boston.

Three years after the great tide of Irish immigration began in 1847, one-fifth of Massachusetts residents were listed as “foreign born” in the 1850 Federal Census. As increasing numbers of Irish Catholic families moved into Foxboro, the pastoral activity of their priests expanded. In 1851, Fr. Michael McLaughlin was assigned to care for the mission stations in Easton, Stoughton, and Foxboro. Soon afterwards in 1853, the Easton mission was separated from Canton. Fr. Aaron Roche was placed in charge of Easton with mission stations in Bridgewater, Mansfield, Wrentham and Foxboro. At this time in Foxboro, Mass was celebrated in the home of Richard Gorman on Central Street. This condition lasted until growing numbers of attendees required the Catholics to secure ever larger meeting rooms in the Odd Fellows Lodge, the Cocasset House, and the Town Hall, constructed in 1857.

On May 2nd, 1859 Bishop John Fitzpatrick established a parish in Foxboro under the spiritual care of Reverend Michael X. Carroll. The boundaries of the parish included Wrentham, Mansfield, South Walpole, Franklin, the Furnace section of Easton, and North Wrentham (now known as Norfolk and Plainville). Fr. Carroll was only 28 years old when he arrived in Foxboro, having previously served as an assistant at St. Patrick's in Lowell. The pastor’s residence was on Granite Street and he was attended by a twenty-three year old male servant named William Quinn and a twenty-five year old domestic servant named Margaret Doherty.

The 1859 establishment of the parish, though significant, was but one of several milestones in the broader history of Catholics residing in Foxboro. Other noteworthy events include enduring the local anti-Catholic sentiments that occurred during the 1830’s Protestant revivalist movement known as “The Second Great Awakening”, and the anti-Catholic discrimination promoted in 1854-1856 by the Know Nothing or American Party, to which Foxboro elected a senator and a state representative. In the mid-1890s local Catholics weathered the vitriolic “Patriotic Rallies” of the American Protective Association that were held in the Town Hall and the American Building on South Street. In September 1923 the first cross-burning attributed to the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan activities took place on Robinson Hill. This was not an isolated event as it was soon followed by cross-burnings on the lawn of St. Mary’s church and the homes of several prominent Catholic families.

Previous to the cross-burnings, fires had major influences on the historical local Catholic community. The “new and neat Catholic Church,” completed in January 1861, was destroyed “under circumstances which caused many to think the fire of incendiary origin” on February 23rd, 1862. Fifteen years later, in September 1877, a meeting was held by the parish to pray for God’s guidance to secure the remaining resources necessary to complete the building of their partially constructed church. Two days later the church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. In early 1902, the newly organized Foxboro Knights of Columbus secured a meeting hall in the William's and Appleby's Block on Cocasset Street. A short time after the deal was complete, the newly appointed building was destroyed by an arsonist. The evidence was not in question, as there was “every indication that the incendiary commenced and completed his preparations.”

The conflagration of the Foxboro Town Hall in 1900 also had a direct impact on the local Catholic families. Prior to the fire, high school graduation ceremonies had been held in the spacious Town Hall. After the fire, the only meeting space large enough to accommodate a graduation ceremony was the Bethany Congregational Church. Graduation exercises were moved there on an interim basis until the new high school was completed in 1927. However, Catholics were prohibited from entering Protestant churches during this era. Due to this restriction, Catholic graduating seniors received their diplomas on the last day of classes and were prohibited from participating in the graduation exercises held for their classmates.

The first half of the 20th Century witnessed the establishment of many local Catholic social organizations to meet the needs of parishioners. Several of the notable organizations included St. Dominic's Court, Massachusetts Court of Catholic Foresters (1910), the Holy Name Society (1908 & 1945), St. Mary’s Catholic Youth Organization (1945), and the Women’s Guild (1947). The popular activities of these groups included “Poverty Balls,” “Turkey Whist Parties,” “Penny Sales,” Harvest Festivals,” and “Summer Field Days.”

The historical challenges that confronted Foxboro Catholics did not originate solely from outside influences. The pre- and post-Vatican II years were the source of much uncertainly and frustration, as well as spiritual renewal and a social consciousness. Catholic rituals and practices that had been in place for two thousand years were changed. Masses that had been celebrated in Latin were now in the English vernacular; the priests and altars that had once faced the cross were now turned to face the congregation; and laity took on the pastoral roles of Lectors and Eucharistic Ministers for the first time in Catholic history. Additionally, St. Mary’s priests and parishioners became actively involved in the Catholic Family Movement, Civil Rights marches, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the Ecumenical Movement, Vietnam and the implications of the Catholic “Just War” criteria.

The 150th anniversary of the establishment of St. Mary’s church as a parish community truly affords both the parish community and town residents the opportunity to appreciate and acknowledge generations of Foxboro Catholics and their neighbors. The historical experiences and challenges of Foxboro’s Catholics are not unique to our town, but are similarly shared throughout the Commonwealth and the Nation. St. Mary’s 150th anniversary is a time to celebrate the past and the present, a time to celebrate religious freedom and the acceptance of religious diversity, but more importantly, it is a time to celebrate the honor of stewardship for future generations. On Sunday, May 31st , The Feast of Pentecost, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, will concelebrate an anniversary Mass.


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