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SOUTH BOSTON -- On Aug. 18, dozens of people armed themselves with spray bottles or small hoses, scrub brushes or toothbrushes, and took on the task of cleaning gravestones in St. Augustine Cemetery.
A handful of these volunteers were members of the Northeast New England chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies, but the majority were locals or parishioners of the Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parish Collaborative, of which St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery is a part. Notable among the volunteers were Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and former ambassador to the Vatican, his wife Kathy Flynn, and Congressman Stephen Lynch.
The cleanup was part of an ongoing restoration of St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery leading up to its yearlong bicentennial celebration, which will begin this September.
Now in the care of the Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parish Collaborative, St. Augustine Cemetery was the first Catholic burial ground in Boston. Its chapel remains the oldest surviving Catholic church in the Boston Archdiocese, which was established in 1808, and included about 500 people in several states.
Bishop John Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, the first bishop of Boston, wanted to dedicate a cemetery in which to bury his friend and colleague, Father Francis Anthony Matignon, who died Sept. 19, 1818. Father Philip Lariscy, an Irish Augustinian priest known for his compelling oratory, campaigned to raise the necessary funds, and as a result of his efforts the cemetery was dedicated in December 1818. In gratitude for his zeal, Bishop Cheverus named the church after the founder of Father Lariscy's order.
Following the dedication of the cemetery, many Catholics arranged to re-inter the bodies of relatives previously buried in other local grounds. The Catholic burial ground coupled with nearby employment opportunities in the glass industry drew many Irish immigrants to the South Boston area.
For Father Robert Casey, pastor of St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven Collaborative, the cemetery tells the story of a people remembering their roots while trying to find their place in a new city.
"You can imagine the people who came in those early years with the Catholic faith into a city that really was not Catholic at that time and had difficulty celebrating their faith. This was really a refuge for them and their faith. They came here to celebrate their faith and their connection to that faith in Ireland and in Italy and so forth," he said.
Today, St. Augustine Chapel is used for Saturday vigil Mass and special occasions such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, and cultural events.
Father Casey expressed hope that the bicentennial will raise "an awareness of our history," noting how the chapel and cemetery were part of the very beginning of the Boston Archdiocese.
"This small little chapel that holds 100 was the seat of where then all these other parishes grew, especially in South Boston; there were 11, 12 churches that grew from this little chapel, when all the immigrants came, mostly Irish, Italian, Polish," he said.
The cemetery clean-up was one of several projects undertaken to renovate St. Augustine. The chapel's roof and shingles were replaced last year, and a significant change in the grounds will be visible in its gates. The stone walls around the cemetery were formerly topped with chain-link and barbed-wire fences, making it uninviting and largely inaccessible. Father Casey applied for a grant from the Community Preservation Act, which supplied funds to replace the fence around St. Augustine. Iron Workers Local 7 have taken the iron fence down and are in the process of refurbishing it.
"It's important, as we go forward, to continue to restore this chapel and cemetery," Father Casey said, noting that St. Augustine is not a parish in and of itself. "With the small number of people who come here and support the 4:00 Mass, it needs donors from outside that little group."
Since the anniversary of Father Matignon's death will be Sept. 19, the yearlong bicentennial celebration will begin on the weekend of Sept. 14-16. Throughout the weekend, the chapel and cemetery grounds will be open from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and tours will be offered for visitors.
The weekend will kick off Sept. 14 with evening prayer and adoration led by Bishop John Dooher.
On Sept. 15 a civic ceremony will take place at 3:15 p.m., followed by a Mass offered by Cardinal Seán O'Malley at 4:00 p.m. Since the chapel only holds 100 people, audio and video equipment will be set up so people outside can watch the Mass.
On Sept. 16 Bishop Robert Hennessey will celebrate a 10:00 a.m. Mass, and a 12:00 noon Mass for the Simon of Cyrene Society, a spiritual group for disabled adults that meets monthly at St. Augustine.