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Spotlight Report

CITY WEEKLY | ESSAY

'What will Lake Street think?' no longer

From the Puritans to a new passing

By Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., 12/14/2003

The announcement that the 76-year-old residence of Boston's Roman Catholic cardinals and archbishops is for sale to help pay the $85 million or so in settlement costs to hundreds of victims of priestly sexual abuse is the latest temblor to unsettle the virtually impregnable religious and social edifice that was the Archdiocese of Boston.

The eventual sale and the upcoming consolidation of parishes in the archdiocese will lay significant historical markers along the road as the Boston Catholic church and its 2 million adherents continue to come to grips with their worst scandal in memory.

Almost a century ago, in 1908, during ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of a Roman Catholic diocese in the Puritans' Boston, Archbishop William Henry O'Connell, born in 1859, the youngest of 11 children of Irish immigrant parents then living in the north-of-Boston manufacturing city of Lowell, set the tone for the fast-growing church's next phase: "The Puritan has passed. The Catholic remains."

O'Connell was speaking to reality, from the crest of a wave: The sons and grandsons of potato-famine Irish immigrants had assumed the political reins of John Winthrop's "city on a hill," and the succession of Irish-Catholic mayors from that time would extend, almost unbroken, to the early 1990s. Which is not to say the Irish always had their way in other significant arenas.

The scions of Brahmin and Yankee stock kept their hands firmly on the tillers of the city's business and financial institutions well into the later years of the 20th century, and they governed the state until other sons of Ireland, like Maurice J. Tobin and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, moved into leadership positions in the governor's office and the Legislature in the 1940s.

All hail 'Gangplank Bill'

O'Connell, who was given a cardinal's hat in 1911, lived thereafter the life of the prince of the church that he was, until his death in 1944.

In the doing, he mesmerized most of the members of his flock by his magisterial ways as their shepherd. He was seen as an autocratic administrator and vigorous public defender of Roman Catholic doctrine and mores in the larger public arena. His activities were followed assiduously in the local press (his travels abroad, which meant newspaper photographs of him getting onto or off a ship, earned him the nickname "Gangplank Bill"), and he was treated as someone special by Boston's non-Catholic elite. He was even invited to join The Country Club in Brookline, perhaps the ultimate old-stock bastion in the state, on whose grounds he occasionally played golf, mostly by himself.

In his 1992 biography of O'Connell, James O'Toole, a historian at Boston College who challenges the notion that the prelate was an omnipotent administrator whose word was always law, writes that the cardinal "was able to cross the barrier between actual leadership and symbolic leadership. . . . Boston's Catholics found that they could live vicariously through him, sharing in the reflected glory when his counsel was sought by kings and presidents, by leaders in society, business, and the arts."

So when O'Connell built for himself, with money he had inherited, a residence in the Italian palazzo style off Commonwealth Avenue and Lake Street near the archdiocesan seminary in Brighton, it seemed right in the eyes of most Catholics that their prince have a home fit for his station. This home came to have its own identification in the local press; instead of wondering what O'Connell and his successors, Richard J. Cushing, Humberto S. Medeiros, and Bernard F. Law, thought about issues of the day, the question was more succinctly put: "What will Lake Street think?"

A church on its knees

Today, the muscular style of involved Catholicism that Cardinal O'Connell brought to bear on issues of his day religious, social, and political in Boston and Massachusetts is mostly history.

In less than a century's time from his proclamation of Catholic hegemony in Boston, the relevance in the larger community of the church whose fortunes he nurtured for 37 years has become suspect. While his successors, especially Cardinal Cushing during the 1950s and 1960s, presided over a church that had significant influence in affairs of city and state, the ecclesiastical edifice that O'Connell built has been buffeted by the winds of religious and social change for decades, and has now been brought to its knees by the sins of some of its latter-day bishops and priests.

Boston's new archbishop, Sean O'Malley, who brings a touch of the exotic to the scene in his Capuchin Franciscan friar's brown robe and sandals, put O'Connell's home up for sale after he moved to the rectory of the Holy Cross Cathedral in the city's South End neighborhood. Archbishop Sean, as he has asked to be called, has many wounds to heal, and he will be doing his sense of his Lord's work far from Lake Street.

While the extent of the diminished clout of the Catholic Church in all aspects of daily life in Boston, in Massachusetts, and across the country is a matter in flux, and many Catholics hope and pray that a new era is dawning, the upcoming sale of the legendary seat of Catholic power in Boston appears to leave little doubt that both the Puritan as well as the William Henry O'Connell brand of bully-for-us Catholicism have passed from the scene.

Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., a former managing editor of the Globe, writes the FYI column for City Weekly.


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