Few of the early Irish emigrants to Boston were Catholics, as they were unwilling to settle in a Puritan colony. Traces of the Catholic Church are found as early as September 1646, when a ship was in port having two priests on board, who were the guests of the governor. Father Druillettes visited Boston, 1650, to discuss with General Gibbons details of a trading pact and alliance with the Canadian French against the Iroquois; it is surmised that he said Mass at the governor’s home. The “Weekly Rehearsal,” 20 March 1732, announces:
“We hear that Mass has been performed in town this winter by an Irish priest among some Catholics of his own nation, of whom it is not doubted we have a considerable number among us.”
During the French and Indian War, 100 French Catholics were arrested in Boston “to prevent any danger the town may be in,” but the sheriff refused to hold them. The Boston “Town Records” admitted that toleration in religion was desirable, but excluded “Roman Catholics” because their belief was “subversive of society.” A favorite New England diversion was a procession on 5 November of the pope and the devil, in celebration of the “Gunpowder Plot,” usually attended by riot. In 1775 Washington expressed his dismay that his soldiers should insult the religion of a country with which they were seeking to form an alliance. The French Huguenot church, now 18 School Street, was taken over by the Catholics and opened on All Saints Day, 1788, under the patronage of the Holy Cross; this was the first Catholic church in New England. After 1848 many German Catholics settled in Boston; they were followed by Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Lithuanians, and others. After the Civil War Catholics were active and powerful in political, business, and professional life; though they formed one-quarter of the population of Boston in 1844, no Catholic had ever held an elective or appointive public office. Until 1860 there were only three Catholic teachers in the public schools. The first Catholic member of the Common Council was elected 1857; the first alderman, 1870; the first member of Congress, 1882. For the past 50 years nearly one-half of the mayors of Boston have been Catholic. Public memorials have been erected in honor of Colonel Thomas Cass; soldier; John Boyle O’Reilly, poet-journalist; and Patrick Andrew Collins, statesman. The school founded in 1820 by Bishop Cheverus and taught by the Ursuline nuns, was the only Catholic school in New England until 1826, when Bishop Fenwick established a second one for boys and girls. In 1829 a classical school was started for the education of young men studying for the Church. Up to 1845 boys in the public schools were forcibly compelled to take part in Protestant prayers and read the Protestant Bible. Catholics established a parochial school about this date. A few years later Boston College was founded. Many prominent Catholic writers have aided Boston’s literary fame, e.g., John Boyle O’Reilly, James Jeffrey Roche, and Katherine E. Conway, editors of “The Pilot“; also Louise Imogen Guiney poet and essayist; and Pearl Mary Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes), novelist and dramatist.