Saturday, November 19, 2011
The Bishop's Problem
Benedict Fenwick had a problem. The growing parish in Lowell was comprised of upstarts and trouble makers. Being the second Bishop of Boston, he had to maintain a delicate balance. He represented the Catholic presence in Yankee Boston. While courting the Brahmins of Boston, he needed to meet the needs of the ever growing Irish population that stretched from the deep woods and Indian strongholds of Maine, down the to the mill towns springing up along New England rivers, over to the choked streets of Charlestown, and to the fishing villages of the Atlantic. All of this with a handful of priests. It meant a different life from his upbringing.
The Benedict family was one of the great families of Maryland, founded as a sort of refuge for Catholics. Because of persecutions against Catholics, his family left England and became major landholders in the colony. He could have had a life of ease, but chose the seminary, namely the Jesuits. Soon he was a professor at Georgetown and later a leading prelate in New York City. He was assigned to help heal divisions in South Carolina. Probably because of the success he had there, upon the return of Bishop Cheverus to France, Fenwick was elevated to the rank of Bishop. Donning the purple robes of his status, his ecclesiastical ring and cross, he left to encounter the trials of his life.
He was now the prelate for one of the major dioceses in the United States, but he also knew of Boston’s past. Christmas, at one time, was banned and still was not fashionable at Fenwick’s time. Bonfires and burning the Pope’s effigy was still being practiced on the fifth of November, though not as violently as in the previous century. The trees that filled Boston Common once held the bodies of his fellow Jesuits in Boston’s earliest Puritan era. Though many of these practices were no longer observed, there was an underlying bias against anything Papist, and with the growing number of Catholics, Boston was on edge.
In 1831, Lowell was his pride and joy. The Corporations gave land for a church and later a cemetery. The numbers justified a full time priest, Father Mahoney. The church was dedicated in July of that year with imposing ceremonies. Regular reports were coming in. While the offertory collections weren’t great, Fenwick had hopes. A major challenge faced Fenwick when the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was burnt by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834. Just days later, news arrived that the Catholic Burial Ground in Lowell was desecrated.
Things go from bad to worse. The new pastor that Fenwick appoints to Lowell does not seem to be performing his duties. Though just a few years old, St Patrick Church is too small for the numbers. Expansions are planned, but the carpenters refuse to work. Funds that were promised to fund the work do not show up. He sends priests to Lowell to investigate allegations. The response is not good. No money. Rowdy parishioners. Priest not showing up for Mass! There’s trouble in the mill city.
Fenwick makes several trips by train and stage to check on conditions. Fenwick recommends that the priest “goes on a spiritual retreat.” Parishioners threaten him with withholding the collections if their priest is replaced. Fenwick wants the work on the church done. He writes in his diary that he is afraid Lowell will not make it. His stomach is upset. He decides to raise funds by selling pews with disappointing results. He replaces the pastor even after the threats of some of the more affluent parishioners. (This same priest returns to Lowell months later, and Fenwick reports the priest is no longer one of his flock.) They literally board up the church. The new cleric, Father McDermott, awaits a welcoming committee at the train station that never shows. He walks to the church and finds he is barred from entering. He physically removes the boards. Fenwick has a headache.
We’re fortunate that we have Bishop Fenwick’s actual words to tell us what was going on. While you could see it as a 19th century soap opera, it reminds us they really lived. It personalizes the people whose lives have influenced where we live. It’s important to remember that they were human with hopes and fears, times of laughter, days of woe. And headaches.