The erection of St. Francis de Sales began in Charlestown, on Bunker Hill, in 1859. By 1861, the first Mass was held in the parish basement. By 1862, the main church, still standing today, was opened. The parish was built next to the Bunker Hill graveyard, where Irish Catholic immigrants were buried after a long fight for the right to burial led by Bishop Benedict Fenwick in the 1830s. In 1931, Bishop Fenwick wrote in his diary, according to Nancy Lusignan Schultz’s book Fire & Roses,
“The B’p is given to understand that the inhabitants of Charlestown
held a meeting yesterday for the purpose of putting a stop to the Catholics of
Boston interring their dead in the new burying ground on Bunker Hill . . . The
B’p thinks he sees in this step the beginning of a hostile disposition on the
part of prejudiced Calvinists to oppose the Catholics as much as possible.”
Following Fenwick’s purchase of the burial ground, the state legislature passed the Petition of the Selectmen of Charlestown to the General Court, more commonly and offensively called the Paddy Funeral Acts, which would prevent Irish Catholic immigrants from burying their dead in Charlestown based on racist and classist arguments that these burials would be unsanitary. All who would be interred would have to be approved by a group of Protestant selectmen. Bishop Fenwick allowed two very young children to be buried in the Bunker Hill graveyard without the permission of the selectmen, which eventually led to heated tension in the area, including the burning of the Ursuline convent and continued destruction of Catholic grounds. By 1834 the Paddy Funeral Acts were ruled unconstitutional by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and over 9,000 bodies were interred there, the last being in the 1940s.
Tension between Calvinists and Catholics continued with the large numbers of Catholics immigrating to the United States and settling in places in Massachusetts that wealthy Protestants, now more likely to be Unitarian than Calvinist, had moved out of, like Charlestown. The Catholic Church grew as the Irish population got larger, and gained more power in the city and its surrounding areas. Churches like St. Francis de Sales and St. Mary’s in Charlestown as well as the Gate of Heaven in Dorchester Heights became a safe place for Irish Catholics, and the community thrived with the support of the church and its pastors. Irish immigrants slowly made their way out of the railroads they’d been working in, and by the 20th century they were a force in Boston’s politics and culture, especially in towns like Charlestown and South Boston.
St. Francis de Sales Church. March 2017.
The church measures “150 feet long, 71 feet wide, and the spire is 181 feet high, towering even above the monument of Bunker Hill.” It can be seen far and wide, and is one of the most prominent landmarks in historical Charlestown, which continues to have a large Irish Catholic population today.
Its current pastor, Daniel J. Mahoney, has been serving since 1978, and has served as Boston’s Chief Fire Chaplain since 1991. He is known for entering the burning Congregation Tifereth Israel in Everett to save Torah scrolls, and later for serving a large role in solving Charlestown’s disagreement between the Catholic and Jewish communities over the naming of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Father Daniel J. Mahoney is the heart and soul of St. Francis de Sales, and he is the best source to learn the history of the parish. His dedication to all religious communities and the town of Charlestown itself shows huge growth from the tense beginnings of Catholic churches in Charlestown.
Father Daniel J. Mahoney, 2006. (Mark Wilson, Boston Globe staff)
“St Francis de Sales Parish.” http://ez-host2.com/tp50/default.asp?ID=118962
Schultz, N. L. (2002). Fire & roses: the burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834. Boston: Northeastern Universi