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‘Massive and elegant,’ according to the New York Times, the granite church in Boston’s South End was the early Boston College’s religious and community anchor. A working Jesuit parish until 2007, the building will soon be developed as condominiums
In the minds of John McElroy, SJ, and the other founders of Boston College, the foremost responsibility of a Jesuit school was to serve the Catholic faith. Such a school, therefore, needed to be linked to a church.
McElroy had, in fact, used that model in Frederick, Maryland, to which his Jesuit superiors at Georgetown dispatched him, in 1822, to minister to a dying pastor and then succeed him at St. John the Evangelist Church. The next year, McElroy—by temperament a restive builder—instituted plans for a free school for girls and soon after opened one for boys.
In Boston, in 1858, some 16 years after he first proposed creating Boston College, McElroy and Bishop John Fitzpatrick broke ground for the broad-shouldered white granite building that would be the Church of the Immaculate Conception, beside which would rise the red-brick structures comprising Boston College. (An earlier plan would have placed the school alongside the original Church of the Holy Cross in what is now Boston’s Financial District.)
The Immaculate, as locals came to call it, was dedicated on March 10, 1861, its name honoring the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a long-standing Church teaching, which held that God had freed Mary from original sin while she abided in her mother’s womb. Pius IX formalized the doctrine in 1854, one of his many responses to the secular revolutions that were challenging papal authority in Europe.
Two-hundred-and-eight feet long and 88 feet wide, the building was described by the New York Times at its opening as “massive and elegant.” The main sanctuary, 70 feet high, could seat 1,200 for Mass. The high altar, the Boston Herald noted, was of “costly white marble, richly carved and heavily gilded.” Its six panels illustrated Mary’s life from the Annunciation to the reception of Jesus’s body and her Assumption. The altar was flanked on each side by three columns and crowned with statues of the Virgin, St. Ignatius, and St. Xavier.
Later, according to the Boston Globe, the Jesuits added ornate altar railings of the “finest Mexican onyx,” supported by the “finest and chastest Italian marble” and capped by “gold bronze.”
The conjoined enterprises of Boston College and the Immaculate—linked by the work of the Jesuit community that served both institutions—proved more fruitful than McElroy could have imagined. By the late 19th century, the Immaculate, unrestrained by parish boundaries, had become a hub of religious, social, and intellectual activities that attracted worshippers, seekers, and strivers from across the metropolitan area. Of his visits to the Immaculate as a Cambridge boy in the 1880s, the philosopher George Santayana recalled the charm of the “rococo music” provided by the choir, organist, and sometimes an orchestra, as well as sermons by the college’s Jesuits, all of them learned men, though some (refugees from Europe’s pesky secular revolutions) were “not quite masters of the English language.” Still, he recalled “one pale Italian in particular” who was “admirable on difficult points in the religious life,” such as: “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?” Of Robert Fulton, SJ, the longtime dean and president at Boston College, Santayana noted: “He was not eloquent; he was not warm; but he could explore the dialectics not only of doctrine but of sentiment.”
The church’s rotating cast of Jesuits was widely respected for lectures offered on both religious and cultural topics. Large crowds came each year during the first four Sundays of Lent to hear addresses on a selected theme, such as the Eucharist, Heaven, or, in 1920, “The Church and the Social Crisis,” a critique of Bolshevism and Socialism. In 1898, Thomas Gasson, SJ—who would serve Boston College as president from 1907 to 1914 but was then relatively new to the faculty—spoke on “The Head of the Church” to celebrate Leo XIII’s 20th anniversary as pope. Two years earlier, the 36-year-old Gasson, who converted from Anglicanism at age 15, delivered four lectures on matters Anglican, including one titled “Are There Priests among the Anglican Clergy?” (News accounts and the archives, alas, are silent on his conclusion.) Visiting Jesuits and other Catholic priests delivered lectures as well. In 1890, a Josephite priest spoke about his order and the “religious condition of the negro in America.” The Sacred Heart Review—a local newspaper—noted in advance of the talk how the Josephites’ “grand work in the South among the colored people [was] limited only by lack of priests and funds.”
The Immaculate supported, in its early years, a modest lending library and a flourishing Sunday school. A newspaper noted that the basement chapel alone could serve as many schoolchildren as “any ordinary city church.” Meetings of the local delegates of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union also took place at the Harrison Avenue building, and a lecture on temperance by a local priest attracted a full house in 1898, with the Boston College president, W.G. Read Mullan, SJ, rising to invite all the men in attendance to join the union if they’d not already done so. The church also hosted retreats for the Young Men’s Catholic Association of Boston College, a group that Fulton organized in 1875 to build financial support for the school and that, by 1902, counted 2,500 members. That same year, the Boston Globe observed that “more of the oldest, richest, and most influential Catholics of Boston attend services at the Immaculate than [at] any other city church.”
The earliest Boston College students nurtured a bond with the Immaculate, which they called “our Chapel.” Each day at Boston College began with Mass, often at the church. (Long-commuting students and non-Catholics were not required to attend.) The student Society of St. Cecilia provided music for Masses, “[appearing] before the public in a most favorable light,” according to a report in Stylus. But the Immaculate was also tied to Boston College students by its hosting of the Mass of the Holy Ghost—”[invoking] the spirit of light and truth upon the students”—to open the academic year, and the Baccalaureate Mass to close it. Many of the 700 students and their family and friends were in attendance to mark the Immaculate’s anniversary at a Solemn High Mass on August 23, 1908, when they were joined—at President Gasson’s invitation—by 49 members of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, which happened to be in town. (The Jesuits were missionaries on the Sioux reservations where many of the performers lived.) The student newspaper observed, “it is safe to say that never before had the church walls contained such a strange group.”
Students also gathered in the Immaculate to mark special occasions and passings—such as the 250th anniversary of the Jesuits’ arrival in Maryland, a priest’s jubilee, and funerals for dignitaries and students. Every student attended the “Mind Mass” in March 1899 to pray for Joseph Vincent, a recently deceased freshman from Somerville, so that he might be freed from sins. The service, according a Stylus editorial, “was a silent though impressive tribute to a noble youth.” Students also met in the Immaculate for annual three-day retreats, largely consisting of Masses, rosaries, spiritual readings, confessions, discourses by the priests, benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and brief periods of recreation. One memo from the “prefect of schools and discipline” in 1886 warned, “Absence during the Retreat is sufficient cause for dismissal from the College. All should bring their Prayer Books + Rosaries on each of the three days.”
In 1911, almost 50 years after the Jesuits opened their school and church in the South End, the Boston Globe said of Boston College and the Immaculate, “the history of the two is so closely interwoven that they may be regarded as a unit.”
Two years later, the College relocated to a bucolic campus on Chestnut Hill, some six miles from its old urban home. But the connection with the Immaculate was not severed. While the Mass of the Holy Ghost—today celebrated as the Mass of the Holy Spirit—was relocated to the recently completed Bapst Library in the 1920s, retreats were held at the Immaculate (and sometimes at Bapst) through the 1940s, before they were introduced at the newly erected Church of St. Ignatius, another Jesuit structure, built at the foot of Chestnut Hill in 1951.
Baccalaureate Masses at the Immaculate largely continued until 1958, when the Heights—in recognition of the growing numbers of students who weren’t native to the city—felt obliged to provide travel directions to and from the South End. The next year, the campus celebrated the Baccalaureate Mass inside McHugh Forum, site of the then-new hockey rink.
Boston College High School, which had stayed on Harrison Avenue when the College left, moved the last of its classes to a new campus in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston in 1954. Jesuit priests remained at their residence in the South End, however, and continued pastoral work at the Immaculate. At the time of the Immaculate’s centennial in 1961, they were offering six Masses each Sunday and nine each weekday. But Boston’s Catholic population was shrinking. By 1986, the church operated at an annual loss of $100,000, and it was offering Mass to some 400 congregants. The Jesuits held on until 2007, when they celebrated a last Sunday Mass on July 29, the Feast of St. Ignatius.
The New England Province of the Society of Jesus sold the Immaculate to a developer in 2013. (The red-brick college buildings had already been developed as condominiums.) With the agreement of the new owner, Boston College is in the process of reclaiming particular items, such as marble statues of Jesus and Mary, the altar railings described above, and the large sounding board that had been attached to the pulpit. The University had previously acquired the pew bench on which Boston College’s earliest presidents sat—it’s installed outside Gargan Hall in Bapst Library—and the organ whose sound once impressed George Santayana. The new items will be placed in storage until a permanent campus home is found for them.
A frequent contributor to the magazine, Seth Meehan, Ph.D.’14, is co-author of The Heights: An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863–2013 (published in 2014) and associate director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies.
Read more by Seth Meehan