A New Diocese, the First Bishop

The first Catholic Bishop of Boston, Fr. Jean Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus

By Robert Johnson Lally
Archdiocesan Archivist and Records Manager
In 1808, Boston was made a diocese, and Fr. Jean Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, a refugee from the French Revolution who had been serving the area since 1796, was named Bishop. He was the right person at the right time to lead the new diocese. In spite of the tension between Catholics and Protestants, Bishop Cheverus was well-liked by both groups. He had earned respect with the work he did to care for people of all faiths during the 1798 yellow fever epidemic. He was at ease socially and seems to have been a natural diplomat.
Over the next 15 years, Bishop Cheverus laid the groundwork for the future of the Diocese of Boston. He traveled extensively throughout the diocese, which at that time included all of New England. Through his missionary work he continued to build respect for the Catholic Church. He defended Catholicism and tried to break down the prejudice of the day.
Under his leadership began the early institutional development of the diocese. He built St. Augustine Cemetery in South Boston. Up until that time, Catholics were buried alongside Protestants. On the cemetery grounds he built the second Catholic place of worship, the Seminary Chapel, in 1819.
Bishop Cheverus was so well liked that, when he was recalled to France, Protestants joined with Catholics to petition King Louis XVIII to allow him to stay. But the king brought Cheverus back to France, where he was eventually elevated to cardinal.