Academic journal article The Historian

Growing Together: Blacks and the Catholic Church in Boston

Academic journal article The Historian

Growing Together: Blacks and the Catholic Church in Boston

Article excerpt

ON 2 NOVEMBER 1788, an unusual event took place in Boston. At a run-down church originally built by French Huguenots on School Street, a Catholic mass was publicly celebrated for the first time. The mass symbolized more than just the Catholic Church's presence; it demonstrated that Massachusetts, home of the Puritans, had finally joined most of the nation in tolerating Catholic worship. As alien and novel as this mass might have been to many Bostonians, however, an even more curious sight would have been observed among the incipient Catholic community. Comprised mainly of French, Irish, and the native-born, Boston's Catholic community also included many blacks, mostly from the Caribbean, who had established themselves in the busy port of Boston.

The traditional portrayal of Boston Catholicism is that it was almost exclusively Irish; the traditional portrayal of blacks in Boston suggests that they were almost exclusively Protestant. This article challenges these assumptions by using various, and seemingly unrelated, primary sources to construct and examine the early history of Boston's black Catholics. I argue that a large part of the growth in Boston's Catholic community at the close of the eighteenth century was directly related to black migration and conversion to Catholicism. The presence of blacks within the Catholic Church during this period is significant. It both challenges the traditional notion that the Irish were solely responsible for the growth of Catholicism in Boston, and suggests that on occasion, and at least for the early life of the Catholic Church in Boston, perceived racial categories were deemed to be of lesser importance than perceived ethnicity.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Massachusetts's Catholics saw the establishment of their first church, Holy Cross; the elevation of Boston to an Episcopal see; and, in 1808, the appointment of its first bishop, John Cheverus. Cheverus's appointment signified Boston's importance relative to other American cities such as New York and Philadelphia, which became dioceses. While the size and make-up of the Catholic population at the end of the eighteenth century are difficult to determine, traditional historiography has tended to see these Catholics as white, mostly French, English, Spanish, Irish, and native-born Americans of European ancestry. (1) One of the first priests in Boston, Rev. Francis A. Matignon, estimated the number of Catholics in New England to be between six and seven hundred at the close of the eighteenth century. (2) At this time, Catholicism in New England was centered outside Boston: indeed, the earliest colony of French Catholics was set up at St. Croix in the present state of Maine in 1604, although by 1605 the French had pushed as far south as Cape Cod. (3) Much of this early history of the Catholic Church revolves almost exclusively around the anti-Catholic prejudice found among the governments and people of New England. In Massachusetts, concern about French control over Maine, together with the fear that the French would incite the Indians to warfare against the English, caused alarm and increased the anti-Catholic rhetoric coming from the provincial government. This occurred at a time when the number of Catholics in New England was so small that it is almost impossible to estimate the number of Catholics outside of French-controlled Maine. (4) Reflecting this anti-Catholicism, Massachusetts Bay passed its first antipriest law in May 1647, followed by another similar law, "An Act Against Jesuits and Popish Priests in Massachusetts in June 1700." (5) Under the terms of the latter, anyone aiding the "Popish Priests" could be fined 200 [pounds sterling] and "set in the pillory on three several days." (6) Other acts of anti-Catholicism abounded, including, for example, the infamous "Pope's Day" celebrations of colonial Boston on 5 November, which, as in England at the time, was marked by parades and the burning of the pope in effigy, and which commemorated a failed Catholic plot in England. …

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