Gate of Heaven Parish History
1890-1916 Tragedy and RebuildingFr. Metcalf's successor, Rev. Robert Johnson, took charge of the parish June 1st, 1890. He was often referred to as the “second founder” of the Gate of Heaven Parish. He was well known to many of the parishioners, having served as curate at S.S. Peter and Paul’s under Father Blenkinsop, and from the start he received loyal support from his parishioners. On assuming the pastorate of the Gate of Heaven he found the inevitable architectural problem facing him. While at first the City Point area grew more slowly than the westerly parish of the peninsula, by 1890 the congregation at Gate of Heaven numbered about 10,000 with about 600 girls registered in the academy and parochial school. The church built by Father Lyndon was quite insufficient for the needs of so large a parish. Besides the usual Sunday school and sodalities, the parish organizations included the City Point Catholic Association, together with branches of the St. Vincent’s de Paul Society, the Holy Name Society, and the league of the Sacred Heart. To provide temporary accommodations even to hear Mass, it was necessary to rebuild and enlarge the St. Michael’s Hall, which was originally built by Father Higgins across the street form the original church. This arrangement was only a makeshift one. It was plain that a new church was required. In order to get ample room for the new edifice, it was necessary to buy several lots adjoining the land purchased by Father Higgins. The hill that stood on this land was removed, and the grounds were graded. Then came a misfortune. On March 4th, 1895, the old church burned, or at least the whole interior of it, and for a time St. Michael’s Hall was the only church the parish had, although services on Sunday were also held in Gray’s Hall. The school, meanwhile, was transferred to the rooms of the City Point Catholic Association. As soon as possible the old church was refitted, and beginning April 10th, 1895 the people went regularly to services in the old edifice, and the school was again started in the lower part of the old church. The accommodations, however, were inadequate. The need for a new church was urgent, and Father Johnson undertook the work of raising funds to supply the need. The people responded generously to the fund-raising appeal. The warm affection with which Father Johnson had inspired his parishioners may in part be attributed to that personal magnetism which a genial and courtly manner is apt to excite. Constant as the law of gravity was his regard for the convenience and feelings of all that he met. These characteristics were not the symbol of distinguished ancestry, but the outcome of a kindly heart.
The cornerstone of the new church was laid in the fall of 1896. The day first appointed for the event was September 13th, and every preparation was made for carrying oout the ceremony in all the splendor of the ritual. Due to inclement weather it was necessary to postpone the laying of the cornerstone until October 4th. On that day again the weather was unfavorable, but the gloomy skies and the chill dampness of the air were forgotten in the eagerness of the people of the Gate of Heaven Parish to witness the solemn ceremony. The cornerstone was laid by His Grace, Archbishop Williams, with about one hundred clergymen assisting at the ceremony.
The cornerstone having been laid, the work of building the church was actively begun. The designs furnished by P.W. Ford, the Boston Architect provided a building worthy of a cathedral. There were great difficulties to overcome, for there was little money at hand, and it was necessary to raise the funds that were immediately needed for the work. That was a difficult task, because for several years there had been a server business depression and lack of employment. Meanwhile, more convenient accommodation were needed for the people of the City Point, and so it was necessary to build St. Eulalia’s Chapel, which was opened for services on May 6th, 1900. The following month the new lower Gate of Heaven church was finished, and the first services were held there June 17th, 1900
With the lower church occupied, the work of completing the upper church was begun. It was a great undertaking, requiring many sacrifices, and was completed only by the generous enthusiasm of the parishioners working zealously and heartily together. Many years of hard labor and much sacrifice are represented in the new church and its fine appointments. This process was done slowly as not to amount debts for the parish.
Before the work was completed, the parish boundaries were re-drawn, and St. Eulalia’s (now known as St. Brigid’s Parish) was set off as separate parish in May 1908. Then, when the upper church was nearly completed, another difficulty arose. The customs officials had given assurances that the church windows would be admitted free of duty, and the first windows received were actually so admitted. Some months afterwards the Treasury Department unexpectedly reversed the judgment of the Collector, declared that all the windows were subject to duty, and required the payment of duties on the two large transept windows already in place, giving notice that the duties must be paid on all the other windows still to come. It became necessary to take the matter to Congress, and after months of work, special legislation was secured permitting the importation of the windows for the Gate of Heaven Church duty free. This was an unusual achievement, and attracted wide attention. References to it were a prominent feature in the debate in Congress when the Tariff Act of 1913 was under consideration. Congress finally decided to give to all churches the privilege that had been granted to the Gate of Heaven Parish, and to add to the free list “stained or painted window glass or stained or painted glass windows, imported to be used in houses of worship,” on which duties had been levied under the previsions of the previous tariff acts. As a direct result, therefore, of the appeal of the Gate of Heaven Parish, and in spite of strenuous opposition made by the American stained glass manufacturers, stained glass windows for churches may now be imported free of duty, and American artists are given the benefits and stimulus of comparison and competition with the works of the best stained glass artists of the Old World. The remission of duties in the church windows saved the parish about $15,000. There were other obstacles to overcome and complications to be straightened out, but the trouble over the windows was the last great difficulty of any significance.
The stained glass windows were designed by N.H.J. Weslake, Esq. of London, whose work, “The History of Design in Painted Glass” is recognized as an authority on the subject. The work of completing the church progressed steadily, and the upper church was ready for services and dedicated by His Eminence, Cardinal O’Connell, on May 12th, 1912.
The church was constructed in the Gothic style of architecture, of buff Roman brick, with brownstone trimmings. It had a frontage on East Fourth Street of 106 feet and depth of 184 feet. The interior itself was magnificent in its arrangement of fittings – the woodwork of oak, alters of sandstone and marble, the blue and gold tinted walls, the beautiful organ and magnificent stations, made it one of the most elaborate houses of worship in or about Boston. With its great height and other conspicuous points it certainly presented an imposing appearance.
Not only had the new church been built, but it had been paid for, and thanks to the generosity and zeal of the parishioners, it was announced July 19th, 1914, that the parish was free from debt. The Church building Fund Society now became the Parish improvement Society, and many improvements were in prospect, one being the erection of a new building of the school.
In his labors Father Johnson was ably assisted by several curates. Among the institutions in the parish requiring the services of the parish priests were the House of Correction, the Perkins Institution for the Blind and Massachusetts School for the Blind, and the Carney Hospital.
During Father Johnson’s pastorate great strides had been made and he endeared himself to his large flock. As a result of his efforts, the new church in the Gate of Heaven Parish stands today recognized by leading authorities as one of the most beautiful church edifices in the Archdiocese of Boston.
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