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Walking tour highlights three Keely churches

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BOSTON — Two dozen members of the South End’s Union Park Neighborhood Association braved a howling snowstorm Dec. 26 for a walking tour of three Boston churches built by Irish architect Patrick C. Keely, led by the president of the Keely Society Edward H. Furey.

A newspaper, The Brooklyn Freeman, estimated that Keely built more than 700 buildings for the Catholic Church, mostly in the East Coast, but some were as far away as Wisconsin, said Furey.

The three churches included in the tour were Holy Cross Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church in the Boston’s South End and St. James the Greater Church in nearby Chinatown.

For the Union Park group, the tour had three purposes, said Kevin A. Cole, who with Harriet G. Finklestein co-chairs of the association’s activity committee.

The first reason was exercise. The second was to serve as a “friend-raising” event where members can interact and share a good time. The third was to introduce local residents in the Union Park area to the group, he said.

Furey told those on the tour one interesting aspect of the cathedral is that, unlike some other churches, its Roman Catholic embellishments were not removed when tastes changed after the Second World War.

Keely built the cathedral from 1861 to 1875.

One example is its high altar, which Furey described as looking like a large white marble wedding cake. It is consistent with the 19th century idea that because Christ the King of Heaven resides in the tabernacle, he should have an appropriate castle on Earth, he said.

The stained glass windows in the cathedral are among the finest examples of enamel on glass in America, Furey said.

There are two chapels devoted to Our Lady of Sorrows, one upstairs and one downstairs at the cathedral, he said. These were built with donations from hundreds of mothers who lost sons in World War II, he said.

The next stop on the tour was Holy Trinity Church, which is known as both the German Church and the Christmas Church, Furey said.

It was an indication that Keely was held in high regard that he was be chosen to build a church for German immigrants because ethnic groups tended to hire people of their own nationality, he said. Keely built the German church from 1871 to 1877.

It is called the Christmas Church because members of the parish were the first to bring large, decorated Christmas trees and wreaths to Boston. America’s first Christmas cards were sent by a member of the parish as well, he said.

A mark of Keely churches are their large mural programs, Furey said. The paintings behind Holy Trinity’s altar were painted by Daniel Mueller. Mueller often worked with Keely, and was also chosen to paint some of the ceilings of the U.S. Capitol, he said.

Today, Holy Trinity serves two populations, said Genevieve Schmidt, the parish’s music director and organist. The first is the German community and the second is the traditionalist community who come to Holy Trinity for the only Latin Mass authorized in the archdiocese.

As those on the tour warmed up in the front pews, Schmidt played an organ recital to demonstrate the different voices of Holy Trinity’s organ.

Listening to her recital from inside the forest of tin and the original wooden pipes, it sounded like birds singing from the treetops as she shifted from the left division to the right division. One set of pipes calling, the other responding.

Then, always in the background, the hum of the air compressor and the cadence of the switches at the base of the pipes; clicking open and closed.

The last church on the tour was Chinatown’s St. James the Greater Church, which Furey said was built after the first Keely-built St. James Church was torn down to make room for new railroad tracks. Keely built St. James between 1873-1875.

The new rectory was built with proceeds from the sale of some parish property to neighboring Tufts Medical Center, said Father Hugh H. O’Regan, administrator for both Holy Trinity and St. James.

The original rectory had a 100 seat auditorium and 22 hotel-style rooms for priests working at the area hospitals or traveling through Boston, O’Regan said.

Unlike the altar at the cathedral, the altar at St. James was updated to a simpler altar with two columns and a large crucifix in the 1950s, Furey said.

The first two churches were built in the Victorian Gothic style, but St. James the Greater is Romanesque in style reflecting the taste of the client, he said.

Furey said his affinity for Keely started as a boy in Enfield, Conn., where Keely built St. Patrick Church. “My grandfather helped build the foundation and other old-timers would tell me stories about seeing Mr. Keely come to Enfield to inspect the construction.”

He started the society in 1995, after he learned that a Keely-built church in Lowell was for sale for $1, in order to promote interest in the architect. The society holds conferences and other events regularly and works with members of the Keely family to document his life’s work.

By the end of the tour, the snow was getting heavier, but nobody was disappointed. Finklestein said her association wants to continue to work with Keely Society and archdiocese on other events.

"For a totally non-religious person, I thought it was wonderful," said Mary E. Darmstaetler, a South End resident.

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