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St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church Complex

Located one block east of the old Dedham Turnpike (Washington Street), an early 19th century route linking Boston with communities to the West, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church came to fruition during the initial stages of Irish immigration to the area. Situated in one of Roxbury’s first strictly residential subdivisions, the construction of St. Josephs Roman Catholic Church reflected the policies of Benedict Fenwick, Bishop of New England during the 1840s. One of those policies encourages newly arrived Irish Catholics not settle in cities, but suburbs instead. Prior to the construction of St. Joseph’s, Roxbury’s Catholic population worshiped in Boston’s South End, at St. Patrick’s Church. It was there that the collection of funds began for what would eventually become St. Joseph’s. The person who spearheaded this effort was Father Patrick H. O’Beirne, temporary pastor of St. Patrick’s. Due to his efforts, Bishop Fenwick appointed him the first pastor of St. Joseph’s Church.


The original construction of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church began on a 41,868 square foot lot between Fenwick, Circuit, Regent and Hulbert Streets, on September 4, 1845 with the laying of its cornerstone. Due to strong anti-Catholic feelings that were lingering in Roxbury and Boston at the time, a trust was initially setup to purchase the land needed for the church, which was not completed until after the placement of the cornerstone. Less than a year later, the first mass was held in the church’s basement on August 23, 1846. For visitors, the architectural trappings of the First Romanesque style, a revival of a round, arched medieval style, predating Gothic, exhibited by St. Joseph’s were quite striking. (1) The use of this architectural is possibly attributed to Richard Upjohn, who is credited with designing the first Romanesque Revival church in the United States, the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York. Four months later on December 6, the church was dedicated. Another striking aspect of the St. Joseph’s Church during the mid-to-late nineteenth century was the ample amount of open space to its south. The 1873 Roxbury Atlas has this site labeled as “graveyard” and is supposedly the burial site of the Father O’Beirne and his brother, Rev. John O’Beirne. However, no archival records or Norfolk County Deeds reference the area as being burial ground.


Due to a large increase in the Catholic population of Roxbury by 1860, it became necessary to put an addition on St. Joseph’s Church. The person responsible for doubling the size of the church was prominent architect Patrick C. Keeley, whose work is featured prominently in Boston. Ultimately, Keeley designed over 600 churches and 20 cathedrals during his career. The Catholic community in Roxbury would call on Keeley throughout the 1880s, as he provided the designs for the rectory (1886) and the school (1887) that were built next to the main church. Additionally, in an ongoing project, he remolded the interior of the church (1883-1886), whose most notable feature was the stained glass windows designed by Mayer Studios of Munich, Germany and the frescos positioned between the windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. All of the windows depicted images of religious figures and saints important to Irish-American devotion at the time.(2) This ambitious construction was done under the auspices of Reverend Hugh P. Smythe. Instead of continuing the Romanesque Revival style in the design of the rectory and the school, Keeley selected Panel Brick and Mansard architectural styles.(3) The school, built along Hulbert Street, originally contained 10 schoolrooms, as well as a large auditorium with seating for 700. Sisters of Charity, based in Madison, New Jersey ran the school, which included primary, as well as high school grades.



Between 1916 and 1917, a convent was built along Regent Street, which was designed by Charles R. Greco, a specialist in Roman Catholic Churches. Greco incorporated elements of the Georgian revival style into the overall design of the convent, which ultimately replaced another, smaller convent and house at the site. Reverend M. J. Spillane is credited with lobbying for the creation of the convent and the purchasing of the land on which it was built. It was a conscious attempt by him and the Archdiocesan Secretary Reverend R. J. Hablerin to finish the church complex’s “square.” Upon its completion, the convent was heralded as a fine example of Georgian Revival architecture.


As the twentieth century progressed, St. Joseph’s changed in concert with Roxbury itself, especially after World War II, as its parishioners became increasingly more integrated. By the early 1980s the church had fallen into a state of disuse and subsequently closed for regular services, however it housed the Sojourner House family shelter from the early eighties into the early nineties. An AIDS hospice was also run on the premises until the mid-nineties. Despite being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, maintenance issues and high heating costs relegated the building to being used primarily in the summer, for high holidays and on special occasions. This situation would define St. Joseph’s until the early 2000s as it was suppressed in 2002 by the Archdiocese and sold, leading to its present state. In 2006 however, the church would once again garner attention as human remains were found on the site, most likely in the area that supposedly designated a “graveyard” in 1873, yet never formally acknowledge. The only identification for the potentially 600 Catholics buried there was a broken tombstone with “County Donegal, Ireland” inscribed on it. 4 1 More information of the architecture of the St. Josephs can be found in Section 7 of the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.

2 More information of the architecture of the St. Josephs can be found in Section 8, pages 4-5 of the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.

3 More information of the architecture of the St. Josephs can be found in Section 7 of the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.

4 Charles Radin, Globe staff. "UNEARTHING A MYSTERY ; ARCHEOLOGISTS, PRIESTS REMOVE REMAINS AT FORMER ROXBURY PARISH :[THIRD Edition]." Boston Globe, July 8, 2006, http://0-www.proquest.com.ilsprod.lib.neu.edu/ (accessed October 1, 2009).

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