by Elaine Ricci
April 8, 2008 marked the 200th anniversary of Boston’s elevation to a diocese. But the journey from the earliest days of our country to the year 1808 was not an easy one. An interview with Robert Johnson Lally, Archdiocesan Archivist and Records Manager, to get some insight into a time when the birth of our diocese coincided with the birth of our nation.
Q.: Catholicism went through difficult times in Boston’s early years. Why was there such a struggle?
A.: The struggle didn’t begin in Boston, but in England, with the Protestant Reformation. I think it’s hard for us to understand today what an upheaval the Reformation was. Actually, those living through it in England at the time didn’t understand the ramifications either. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon in 1527 because she hadn’t produced a male heir. Pope Clement VII refused to allow the divorce, so Henry dissolved England’s ties with the Papacy and started his own church. That began a struggle between Catholics and Protestants in England that went on for generations. But Rome still had an influence, and a faction known as the Puritan Separatists wanted to eliminate that influence. They brought that sentiment with them to the New World.
Q.: When did the sentiment change?
A.: It was a slow process, driven more in the beginning by political expediency than the belief in freedom of religion. During the American Revolution, the colonies needed the support of the French against England. Well, France was a Catholic country. So the Revolutionary leaders had to show more tolerance. Also, the Catholic presence in Boston was growing with both French and Irish immigrants. We had chaplains from the French Fleet stationed here.
Q.: When did Catholicism become legal in Massachusetts?
A.: The Massachusetts Constitution, which took effect in 1780, made it legal for Catholics to practice their faith in public, but they still could not hold office. You have to realize that, as more immigrants arrived, much of the prejudice against Catholics was really prejudice against immigrants. The immigrant groups, French and Irish at that time, didn’t get along with one another either.
Q.: How did we get from that situation to becoming a diocese?
A.: It really was amazing, considering all the obstacles. I think an important factor was the early Church leadership. In the late 18th century, we were blessed with two dynamic priests, Fr. Francis Matignon and Fr. Jean Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus. They were able to smooth relationships between the French and Irish and build bridges with Protestants. By 1799, when they were raising money to build the Church of the Holy Cross, they were receiving support from the entire community, including President John Adams.
With elevation to diocesan status in 1808, Cheverus became the first bishop of Boston, and the Church of the Holy Cross became a cathedral. There would still be many obstacles to overcome, but the foundation had been laid.
Q.: What can we learn from the early days of the Church in Boston?
A.: I think we can be inspired by the trials of early Catholics. If they could survive, and eventually flourish, so can we, no matter how difficult it sometimes seems. The journey to 1808, to the elevation to diocesan status, was the beginning of the journey we continue on today—together in Christ.”