by Rick Winterson
The St. Augustine Chapel at Dorchester and West Sixth Streets is a part of the combined St. Brigid/Gate of Heaven Parish; its Pastor is Fr. Robert Casey. This Chapel, along with its surrounding grounds that are almost entirely a cemetery, is the oldest Catholic Church in the Commonwealth, and the second oldest in all of New England. And actually, its cemetery is in fact the oldest cemetery in New England. By one measure, the St. Augustine Chapel will be 200 years old in 2018.
More specifically, Fr. Matignon, the first Catholic priest assigned to the parish of Boston (and indeed, to all of New England) died on September 15, 1818. He was buried in the Old Granary Burial Ground on Tremont Street. Bishop Cheverus, Boston’s first Bishop assigned to the new Diocese from Baltimore, decided to build a chapel in his colleague’s memory. Ten months later, the Chapel was dedicated – on July 4, 1819. Fr. Matignon’s remains were transferred into a crypt by the Chapel altar. The story of Fr. Matignon and his “parish” of six mostly roadless states is an inspiration, as well as being of great historical interest.
As something of an aside, the last three **18 years in the New World have figured in American history in more than one way. No one needs to be told that the first Armistice Day, the ancestor of our American Veterans Day, occurred on November 11, 1918 – at the end of World War I, “The War to End All Wars”. Our own colonial patriot Paul Revere, a friend of Bishop Cheverus, also died in Boston in 1818. And the City of New Orleans, later to become part of America via Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase from Napoleonic France, was founded in 1718.
Enough said (for now) about history. The Chapel’s Pastor, Fr. Casey, has decided that the upcoming years of 2018 and 2019, exactly two full centuries after the Chapel was built and dedicated, should be memorialized in some way. He convened a meeting of interested parishioners and South Boston residents in the Gate of Heaven Hall three weeks ago on December 7, which was attended by nearly 20 people.
Fr. Casey opened this meeting by explaining his thoughts about a Chapel Bicentennial. Next, the last half of the meeting was mostly spent soliciting ideas from the attendees. Establishing a firm agenda, committing to it, and bringing it off will follow. Another meeting about the St. Augustine Chapel’s memorial observances is scheduled for Thursday, January 25. All those interested are welcome to attend. Specific action committees will be set up during that meeting.
Some of the first meeting’s topics are listed below:
Almost a full year of observances will be planned, extending from the date of Fr. Matignon’s death, through the following July 4 – 200 years after the Chapel’s original dedication on July 4, 1819.
Questions about landmark status, as well as possible historical grants, will be asked and answered.
The Archdiocese will be invited to take a very strong interest and to actively participate in the Chapel’s Bicentennial.
How best to work with the Catholic Cemetery Association? Their contribution to the stories around the St. Augustine Chapel and those buried there?
A website is essential for this Bicentennial project. Using this website, can a “popular narrative” of the Chapel be developed? Can students taking history at local colleges be enlisted to help?
Services of an architect have been offered by the Archdiocese. The Chapel itself is in need of maintenance work and significant upgrades, both interior and exterior – perhaps $500,000 worth.
The above list is not complete, but will give some idea of what has to be done. The Bicentennial of the St. Augustine Chapel should be one of the most interesting and challenging projects ever to arrive in South Boston. Reminder: Next meeting, Thursday, January 25, 2018.
And for all you history buffs, the oldest Catholic Church in New England is located in Damariscotta, Maine.
Happy New Year!