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New photo-rich book tells history of 'Catholic Boston'

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BRAINTREE -- You are probably familiar with them -- paperback books with sepia-toned covers that tell the story of a local community. This week, Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series has a new installment, "Catholic Boston," which through photos and text relate the history of Catholics in Boston from the 19th to the late 20th century.

The new book was authored by Thomas P. Lester, the archivist and records manager of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Lester frequently contributes articles about historical figures and events to The Pilot. He was a history major at Gettysburg College, where he interned at the library's Special Collections Department. Lester then earned a Masters in Library Science and Master of Arts in History from Simmons College. "Catholic Boston," which was released on Sept. 3, is his first book.

Arcadia Publishing reached out to Lester in June 2017 looking for someone qualified to write a book about Boston's Catholic history for the Images of America series.

Lester said, "This was a subject they had actually been looking to do for a number of years, and they were just looking for someone who could take on the project."

Having written shorter pieces, such as dissertations and articles, "a project of this length was something I was willing to challenge myself with," he said.

In August 2017 Lester submitted a formal proposal to the editors, with a summary of possible content, an overview of Boston's Catholic history and culture, and sample images and captions. The project was approved in September 2017 and a deadline set for September 2018.

The process moved along quickly, Lester told The Pilot.

He said, "I only had about six months to put it all together, working after work and on weekends."

He submitted the final copy in March 2018 and then had a few weeks for revisions.

"Catholic Boston" covers the history of the Catholic Church in the Greater Boston Area from its roots in the late 1700s to the death of Cardinal Richard J. Cushing in 1970. The book features a foreword by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

While most of the book's photographs were obtained from the archives of The Pilot and the Archdiocese of Boston, it also features images from the Boston Athenaeum, Boston College, College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts State Archive, St. Mary's Center for Women and Children, the Museum of Fine Arts, the West End Museum, and the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

Lester originally envisioned organizing the book chronologically, but realized that would make it difficult to show the history of Catholic groups and charities over the 200 year history of the archdiocese.

Eventually, he said, he decided to arrange the content thematically, with each chapter focusing on a topic such as community service; education; lay organizations; churches, chapels, and shrines; and the extended Catholic community.

"I wanted to tell a story," Lester said, and went on to explain that doing so entailed "negotiating what's actually available in terms of visuals in this case. I didn't want to add a lot of written, word-typed documents that wouldn't be quite as inviting or stimulating to look at as opposed to the photographs, where I think you can really pick out the details and see the action and the events happening."

"So it's sort of navigating that line of how much do I want to seek out to really fill in each piece of the story, or just follow along with what's available in the collection and use what's there. That's also why we decided on the chapter on parishes and organizations outside of Boston," he added.

Like other books in the series, "Catholic Boston" relies heavily on photographs to bring history to life for readers.

"I must have flipped through at least 2,500 photographs to choose the ones for the book, and I made a whole spreadsheet with the photo numbers and descriptions and everything," Lester said.

Lester said MaryJo Donzella, an assistant archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston, provided invaluable help in the process of sorting and scanning the images.

"She probably spent eight to ten hours getting them all scanned to the right specifications. That was a huge time-saver. You can never do these things alone. I also had a few people read things over and edit for me, so I'm very thankful for all that help," Lester said.

"I'm excited to hear what people think of it," he said, adding, "It's nice to see your work come to completion."

Lester said he has ideas for new projects, but does not know whether they will be articles or books.

"I love writing. I enjoy writing for The Pilot, as well, and doing those articles. It keeps me engaged with the material as I'm always learning more about the history about the documents in our collections, and in this case all the photographs. I want to keep doing those kinds of things. Whether it will be a book, I don't know, but I'm going to research a topic I'm really interested in exploring, and then see how much material is there once the research is done, and keep an open mind about it," he said.

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