The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, commonly known as Mission Church, will mark its sesquicentennial with a special Mass and celebration Oct. 2. Pilot photo/courtesy Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
BOSTON -- In past decades, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, commonly known as Mission Church, was called the "Lourdes of the East" because of the number of seemingly miraculous cures that occurred there. But whatever name it has been called, it has been known as a place of healing and community throughout its 150-year history.
The basilica parish will celebrate its century and a half of ministry on Oct. 2 with a special Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley. The celebration was originally planned to be held in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Mission Church is run by the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorists, a religious order founded by St. Alphonsus of Liguori. In 1866, Pope Pius IX entrusted the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists with the instruction to "make her known." A copy of the icon is present in the basilica, which was founded in 1870 by German and Irish immigrants.
The basilica has been such an enduring presence that the Mission Hill neighborhood, once known as the Boston Highlands, takes its name from Mission Church.
Father Joseph Tizio, the pastor and rector of the parish, has been there for eight years, which he described as "a wonderful experience."
An unusual feature of the parish, he said, is that it serves "a very transitory population," mostly college students and medical professionals. The majority of their regular parishioners come from communities outside the neighborhood of Mission Hill.
"It's very different from the Mission Church of 150 years ago," Father Tizio said.
At the time of its founding, most parishioners were immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Traces of its Irish heritage can be seen in the church, such as shamrock details and a shrine to St. Patrick. That demographic has shifted, as it has in many American parishes, as immigrants have arrived from different countries over time. Today, the community at Mission Church includes people from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cape Verde.
"What stays (the same) is that it's still ministering to immigrants. What's changed is the immigrants come from different countries now," Father Tizio said.
Another continuous defining characteristic of Mission Church has been its healing ministry. Crutches left behind by past visitors serve as a testament to the many cures attributed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Father Joseph Manton, who was in the parish for 65 years, used to hold weekly novenas, which have continued under Father Anthony Michalik. Father Ed McDonough, who was known as "the healing priest," documented every seemingly miraculous healing that took place.
"The uniqueness of this place is it's always been a church for healing. It has an amazing ministry of healings, through the shrine, through Our Lady of Perpetual Help," Father Tizio said.
Parish secretary Rose Cotrone and her family have a long history in the parish. Her great-aunt was baptized there in 1895, and her mother worked there cleaning the church. Cotrone attended the parish grammar school and high school and has worked in the parish office for the past 35 years.
Some people are drawn into the basilica just to look at the architecture, wondering what could be inside the impressive building with twin spires. Cotrone said they might stay to hear one of the priests preaching and end up praying before the icon, lighting a candle, and asking for the Mass schedule.
Because they are located so close to Boston's hospitals, many people come while visiting sick friends or relatives. Cotrone said the church has "a calming effect" on visitors.
"It's an amazing thing, when you watch people come in, and they're all upset, and then they go up to the shrine, kneel and say some prayers, and they come out, and they feel 100 percent better," she said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the basilica live-streamed Masses in English, Spanish, and Creole. They also held a special Mass for healing every Wednesday in front of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, giving people a chance to look upon the image despite not being able to worship there in person.
The basilica was also kept open each day for private prayer, largely for those with loved ones in the nearby hospitals.
"People love to come here when they're in distress. When there's a loved one who's in really serious condition, this is a place they like to come for prayer and for peace. So during the pandemic, we especially kept it open for them," she said.
Cotrone said that although some of the elderly still have not returned to Mass, they continue to send church envelopes and ask for Mass cards. She said that even people who have not lived in the parish for years still donate and plan to be buried there.
The parish has had two schools associated with it in its history. Mission Grammar School opened in 1889 and remains in operation. Mission Church High School operated from 1926 to 1992, when it was sold to the Boston Public School System and renamed New Mission High. Many hospital employees send their children to the grammar school or the parish's religious education program.
One aspect of the basilica's history being revived for the anniversary is a Passion play, "Pilate's Daughter," written by Redemptorist Father Francis Kenzel. The parish first produced this all-women play in 1902, and it eventually had a run on Broadway, according to the basilica website. It was last performed in the parish over 50 years ago. In honor of the basilica's 150th anniversary, they have commissioned composer Felicia Sandler and playwright David Mulei to adapt the script to an oratorio titled "The Mystic Rose." Excerpts of the music will be used in the anniversary Mass.
The 150th-anniversary celebration will take place at 11 a.m. on Oct. 2. Cardinal O'Malley will be the main celebrant of the Mass, which will be followed by a catered outdoor reception in the rectory garden. Only one Mass will be held that Sunday to allow the basilica community to celebrate together.
More information about the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is available at www.bostonsbasilica.com.