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Ceremony, Mass kick off St. Augustine Chapel bicentennial

  • Father Robert Casey, pastor of St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven Collaborative, speaks at the ceremony to commemorate the bicentennial of St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault
  • Cardinal O’Malley celebrates Mass in St. Augustine Chapel. (Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault)

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SOUTH BOSTON -- St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery began its year-long bicentennial celebration on the weekend of Sept. 14-16 with tours, special Masses, and a civic ceremony.

The chapel and cemetery opened for tours during the morning and early afternoon of the three days. Other events took place each afternoon. On Sept. 14, these activities included evening prayer and eucharistic adoration with auxiliary Bishop John Dooher.

On Sept. 15 the tours were followed by a civic ceremony at 3:15 p.m. with several elected officials attending or participating. Cardinal Seán O'Malley opened with a prayer, and Congressman Stephen Lynch introduced each speaker, many of whom were South Boston natives with personal connections to the St. Augustine community or the larger Irish community of Boston.

St. Augustine Cemetery was the first Catholic burial ground in Boston, and its chapel is the oldest surviving Catholic church in the Boston Archdiocese. It is now in the care of the Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parish Collaborative.

Bishop John Lefebvre de Cheverus, the first bishop of Boston, wanted to dedicate a chapel and cemetery in which to bury his friend and colleague, Father Francis Matignon, who died Sept. 19, 1818. Father Philip Lariscy, an Irish Augustinian priest, campaigned to raise the necessary funds. In gratitude, Bishop Cheverus named the church after the founder of Father Lariscy's order.

The cemetery was dedicated in December 1818, prompting many Catholics to arrange to reinter the bodies of relatives in the new cemetery. The Catholic burial ground, coupled with nearby employment opportunities, in the glass industry drew many Irish immigrants to the South Boston area in the 1800s.

About 1,000 people are buried there, including several ancestors of Congressman Lynch, whose mother raised him and his sisters to visit and decorate the graves for every holiday.

"While I didn't appreciate it back then, I do now," Lynch said during his remarks at the ceremony.

He later explained that because of those visits, "I have always known where I came from." He called the chapel, its history, and the Catholic faith "the one constant" in the midst of so many changes that have taken place and are still taking place.

Lynch thanked the Save the Chapel Committee, who worked "intensely" to preserve St. Augustine Chapel, and Iron Workers Local 7, who refurbished the wrought iron fence around the grounds. He showed and read aloud the commemorative remarks he wrote into the Congressional Record on Sept. 14.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the 1880s, also offered remarks. He grew up in a house on the corner of West 6th Street and F Street, within sight of the cemetery.

Sullivan said that as he grew older he was struck by the short lifespans of the priests buried in the chapel, and realized that life expectancy for priests was even shorter than that of laypeople in the 1800s because priests would visit people with communicable diseases to give them the anointing of the sick, even when their friends and family would not go near them.

Sullivan also said his family told him how they remembered novenas being held during World War II with standing room only.

Remembering that strong faith community, he said, "when I see all the problems that we have today in the world and even in our Church, I'm inspired by the example of our forebears who worshipped here, who were buried here, who endured as much or more than we endure now, and they persevered, and this church had thrived for 200 years, benefiting from their example and their prayers."

Father Robert Casey, pastor of St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven Collaborative, spoke briefly. He thanked the Archdiocese of Boston Cemetery Association for keeping the grounds clean each week; Dan McCole, who allowed the parish to use his painting of St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery in their printed materials; and Cardinal O'Malley for his leadership and determination.

"Let us not forget this rich history, and let us pray for a hope-filled future for our Church," Father Casey said.

City Councilor At-Large Michael Flaherty, City Councilor Edward Flynn, as well as his father, former Boston mayor Vatican Ambassador Raymond Flynn, also addressed the gathering.

"The reason why so many of us answered Father Casey's call in helping restore this chapel and cemetery was because this was our chance, whether you're a Catholic or not, or even of Irish descent or not, to tell the story of the persecution and the discrimination of Irish Catholics in Boston and what they had to endure when they first came to this city and to this country," Raymond Flynn said.

He ended his remarks by sharing some advice his grandmother, Ellen Collins from County Cork, gave to him: "Don't hang out your dirty laundry. Never complain about how unfair you're being treated by people in life. Work hard to change it."

Following the civic ceremony, Cardinal O'Malley celebrated Mass inside the chapel. Matignon High School students handed out programs to people entering. Since seating was limited to about 100 people indoors, screens and speakers were set up on the cemetery grounds so people could watch it outdoors.

In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley noted the significance of meeting in a cemetery, pointing out the similarity to early Christians' practice of celebrating the Mass on the tombs of martyrs. This, he explained, is the origin of the tradition of placing relics inside altars.

"A cemetery is a place where our brothers and sisters who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith continue to witness to us," he said.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan, Councilor Flaherty, and Cardinal O'Malley all expressed hope that St. Augustine Chapel will stand and its community will continue to thrive for another 200 years.

After the Mass, the cardinal blessed a stone grotto in the cemetery containing a statue of Mary and showed Boston Police Commissioner William Gross the grave of Barney McGinniskin, the first Irish-born police officer in the country. An outdoor reception was then held on Tudor Street.

"It was a beautiful ceremony. It was very nice to be able to celebrate, especially our namesake of our school, so I think that was an especially important reason for us to come out today," Matignon High School campus minister Susan Johnson said.

On Sept. 16, the chapel and cemetery were again open for tours, and Bishop Robert Hennessey celebrated two Masses there, the second in honor of the Simon of Cyrene Society, a spiritual group for disabled adults that meets monthly at St. Augustine.

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