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Restorations expected to draw new, returning visitors to historic North End church

Cardinal O'Malley anoints the altar of Leonard's Church in Boston's North End during the Mass to rededicate the church following extensive renovations, Dec. 17. Pilot photo/Patrick E. O'Connor

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NORTH END -- It was standing room only when Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley came to re-open St. Leonard's Church in Boston's North End with a Mass of Dedication, Dec. 17. The 144 year old historic church had been closed for a full year while a complete restoration project, whose total costs exceeded $5 million, was in progress. St. Leonard's Church, as well as the Franciscans who have staffed the parish for over 100 years, is an essential part of the North End.

It was in 1873 when thousands of poor, struggling, and often illiterate Italians began to arrive in the archdiocese that Archbishop Williams called upon the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province to serve their needs. Since that time, the Franciscans have been at the center of the community.

That became evident when the North End responded so generously to the restoration project. Major benefactors began with several bequests to the parish followed by a number of significant major financial gifts during the construction period. Then, the St. Joseph Society in the North End covered all remaining costs with a $1 million dollar gift, the largest in the history of the parish.

Clearly, people remembered. They remembered that during the deadly flu epidemic that struck the North End in 1917 that it was the Franciscans of St. Leonard's that established the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain to care for hundreds of children who were left orphans. They remembered how the Franciscans confronted illiteracy and the need for education by establishing St. Anthony's Elementary School in 1902 and then in 1945 opening Christopher Columbus High School for boys and Julia Billiart High School for girls.

The restoration itself can best be described as stunning. Restoration features include the altar, lectern, and baptistery, which are all made with marble coming from the lower chapel which was the first shrine dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua in the Archdiocese of Boston. The altar itself encases the relics of St. Maria Goretti, St. Gemma Galgani, St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, St. Paul of the Cross and St. Vincent M. Strambi. Above the altar is a breathtaking rendition of Mary's assumption to heaven on a cloud accompanied by angels as the Apostles look up at her.

Each year, thousands of people visiting the North End stop in at St. Leonard's for a moment of prayer and reflection.

However, St. Leonard's is now also anticipating thousands of former North End residents who will be visiting their former parish and marveling at the restorations. Beyond that, Italian and Italian American organizations such as the Italian American Heritage Committee, the Pirandello Lyceum, the Renaissance Lodge of the Sons of Italy, and the Italian American Alliance as well as several others are already lining up to reserve time for an annual Mass at their beloved Franciscan St. Leonard of Port Maurice Church.

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