Milestones don’t happen every day, and that couldn’t be more accurate when it came to the St. Francis De Sales Church’s Jubilee 160 celebration on Sunday, May 19 – a celebration that highlighted the good times of the past and celebrated the new vibrancy that has emerged in Parish life over the last few years.
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day,” said St. Francis Pastor Dan Mahoney, only the eighth pastor of St. Francis in the last 160 years. “This was a real Jubilee celebration.”
Said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, “As one of the foundational churches in the Archdiocese of Boston, St. Francis de Sales Parish has served the people of Charlestown for 160 years. The parish began serving as a spiritual home for Charlestown’s Catholic community at the time of the Civil War and across many generations has provided spiritual and pastoral care through the celebration of the sacraments, assistance to residents in times of need and support for the local community. We are blessed by and give thanks for Fr. Daniel Mahoney’s more than 40 years of service as Pastor at St. Francis, including his unfailing and selfless ministry to the men and women of the Boston Fire Department and all first responders who provide for our safety and well-being.”
For more than two years, Parishioners had been planning Jubilee 160 with subcommittees to iron out the details and nitty gritty of the celebration marking the June 1, 1859, groundbreaking of the church.
On Sunday, Father Mahoney was joined by Cardinal Sean O’Malley to celebrate the event ahead of the actual day, having a special Mass that attracted numerous long-time residents, many new residents to the Town, and a number of former residents who moved out years ago but still held St. Francis close to their hearts.
Father Mahoney reiterated that the Church is the official firefighter’s church in the Archdiocese, named so by the late Cardinal Cushing in 1959 as a way of honoring the numerous firefighters that came from Charlestown and were a part of the Parish.
Beyond that, he said St. Francis has been intertwined in the fabric of the community – both in the past and present. As the church being the oldest Catholic church in Boston having continuous service in the same building, the history of the Town is often that of St. Francis.
“The Church has played a great part in the history of Charlestown and in a positive way,” he said. “With busing, we had to try to stop demonstrations that were happening in 1972 and 1973 [which was] a difficult time because of the emotions and worry in finding a place for their children. One sad time came when we had to close three Catholic schools here and consolidate them into one. The people here have been through many upsets, but they stuck together and they made this community the wonderful place it is today.”
Father Mahoney said the Parish did lose many members during busing in the 1970s and 1980s, but in recent years it has gained Parishioners and, with that, a strong vitality amongst the new and old members.
“At the time of busing we lost a lot of people that moved out for homes in the suburbs to find a public school or Catholic school there for their kids,” he said. “Now, things are coming back again. In the last few years, we’ve had a steady growth rate at St. Francis De Sales. Many of the new people coming in are Catholic and are becoming active in the Parish. For example, 50 percent of the people on the Committee are newcomers. It’s a sign the vibrancy of the Parish is still there after 160 years.”
For those that did leave, Sunday was a time to return – and many did return to their old Parish to celebrate.
“It’s a very special time for them and that’s where their spiritual journey began with their parents, the priests at the Parish and the Dominican sisters who staffed the school,” he said. “Many people who left come back to have their parents’ funerals here and to have their children baptized. It is a special place for them.”
St. Francis De Sales is one of hundreds of church built by Irish immigrant Patrick Keely – who also built the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End and St. Mary’s in Charlestown. He is also responsible for hundreds of other churches in his home of Brooklyn and New York City.
At St. Francis, the church is an excellent example of Irish architecture that Keely brought to his projects, and that has been recognized by the American Society of Architects and Engineers.
“They had their meeting in Boston about 20 years ago and said the church was one of the finest examples of the Irish architecture because of the steeple,” he said. “In Irish architecture the steeples are on top of the front door. In England and Germany they are on the side or to the left. They said it was one of the best examples.”
Inside, the church is an exact replica of a church Keely knew in Limerick, Ireland (St. Mary’s) – with balconies on three sides.
Though the celebration Mass has come to an end, and the official day on June 1 will soon pass, the Parish, according to Father Mahoney, seems that – unlike many churches these days – it has many more bright milestones ahead of it.