IC 175th History
A History of Immaculate Conception Church
In commemoration of Immaculate Conception's 175 anniversary, we present a history of IC Church.
The Early Days of Catholicism in Newburyport
Newburyport, like Salem and Marblehead, was among the first to receive the early settlers in the Massachusetts colony. Catholics, in those days, were very few. Through much of the 17th and 18th century, Catholics were either banned or discouraged from public worship. It was not until the late 1700s that Catholics were permitted to enter certain towns…facing expulsion and even death from strong puritanical-minded townsmen.
It was in this atmosphere, beginning in 1790, that Fathers Thayer, Matignon, and Cheverus made occasional visits to Newburyport to encourage the small gathering of people to remain steadfast in their prayers for a priest to assist them on a full time basis. The very first Catholic services conducted in Newburyport were at the home of Captain and Mrs. Cutler by then Bishop Cheverus. These services did not happen regularly and were mostly attended by a dozen French exiles and other immigrants.
The few priests that had their headquarters in Boston had a large territory to cover…sometimes visiting communities only once per year! Newburyport Catholics needed to go to Boston for the sacraments of marriage and baptism.
In 1827, Bishop Fenwick was able to visit all of the Catholic settlements throughout New England and was received warmly in Newburyport. Father William Wiley, the pastor of St. Mary’s Church of Salem, visited Newburyport quite frequently from 1827 to 1840 and celebrated Mass in a room in the home of Mr. Hugh McGlew. Newburyport, which had been a part of St. Mary’s parish was, in 1836, made a part of a parish in Dover, NH. What was preventing Newburyport from becoming its own parish? When would the long wait be over?
Newburyport’s First Catholic Parish
The year 1841 was a prosperous one for the town of Newburyport. In that year, a railroad connection was made and a cotton mill was built. These enterprises brought new people to Newburyport, among them, several Catholics—French, Italian, and Irishman—all eager for their own priest and place of worship. Even Father Canavan, the pastor from Dover, NH, could not visit frequently enough to meet the growing needs of the people.
In 1844, Catholic worshippers reached a number to warrant the purchase of some land on Charles Street. In that same year, Hugh McGlew, acting as the agent of the congregation, bought the vestry of Old South Church (at Federal and Church Streets) and had it moved to the land at 30 Charles Street. The little band of Catholics soon remodeled the structure to make it suitable for services. The “new” church, seating one hundred, was called St. Mary’s and remained in use until our current church building was erected. Fr. Canavan continued his visits until 1848, when on February 5 of that year Fr. John O’Brien was delegated to supervise the faithful of Chelsea, Lynn, Newburyport, and the surrounding towns. His first night in Newburyport he stayed at the Merrimac House and on the following day he rented a tenement apartment at 6 Tremont Street. Fr. O’Brien subsequently moved to a tenement at 7 Charles Street to be close to the church.
On May 15, 1848, an independent parish was established. Our parish was born, that day, 175 years ago. When did the parish name change to Immaculate Conception?
More about Our First Pastor, Rev. John O’Brien
Father John O’Brien was born in 1800 in Ballina County, Tipperary, Ireland, the son of James and Honora. He was ordained a priest on December 24, 1828 at the Diocese of Clare, Ireland.
He traveled to America with his older brother, also a priest, and did missionary work in Richmond, Virginia. On February 5, 1848 Fr. John O’Brien was commissioned to take charge of Chelsea, Lynn, and Newburyport. Soon he became our first pastor…but only for seven months! On December 21, 1848, he was transferred to Lowell, MA where he remained until his death in 1874.
Perhaps Fr. O’Brien is best known for “Father John’s Medicine,” a patent medicine widely used in the United States beginning in 1855. This story starts with Fr. O’Brien suffering terribly with cold and flu symptoms. He contacted a pharmacy, Carleton and Hovey of Lowell, and asked for a tonic for relief. The tonic was a non-alcoholic mix made of cod liver oil and had a licorice taste. He was soon well again and as strong as ever.
He urged his parishioners to make use of the tonic for their overall health. Mr. Carleton and Mr. Hovey, using Father John as the spokesman, began to manufacture and mass-produce the medicine in Lowell. It’s still available today on Amazon. Fifteen dollars gets you an 8-ounce bottle!
A New Pastor and a New Church called “Immaculate Conception”
Replacing Father O’Brien on Christmas Eve 1848 was Father Henry Lennon. Fr. Lennon immediately recognized the need for a new church to accommodate the growing congregation. Within a year of his arrival, he was looking for land for a new church. Soon, John Nichols of Salem, acting on behalf of Boston’s Bishop Fitzpatrick, purchased land on Green Street for $1,800.
No time was wasted in building a church. Amid grand ceremonies, the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Fitzpatrick on April 27, 1852. The building contract was granted to Mr. Albert Currier, a master builder from Newburyport. The church was built for a cost of $20,000.
It was only fitting that a Parish composed of many sons and daughters of Ireland should have its new church dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1853. The church was dedicated under the patronage of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (referring to dogma that Mary is free of original sin from the very start of her life). The event was attended by at least 1,500 Catholic parishioners and over 1,000 other spectators. On March 18 the Newburyport Herald wrote of the event: “The Catholics will have a large and beautiful church and a worthy and beloved pastor to officiate in it. We are glad of this for we honor their faith and respect and love the fervor and sincerity of their devotion.”
Fr. Lennon’s Devotion to the Parish and to Newburyport
We last met Fr. Lennon as he presided over the dedication of the Immaculate Conception Parish church in 1853. Following soon thereafter, a residence was purchased for Fr. Lennon on Court St. on the site of the present rectory. Fr. Lennon’s zeal and energy continued through 1862 with major repairs to the church, the addition of a basement room where Sunday School was conducted and the beginnings of a tower in preparation for a spire.
This was a time of rapid growth for the parish. An extremely loyal following indeed. A Newburyport Herald article from 1861 noted that “there are perhaps not more than 2500 Catholics in this city…and...full three-quarters of these are attending church once at least every day…. From a thousand to fifteen hundred of them will attend Mass at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Fr. Lennon’s dedicated service to the parish and the community came to an end after 21 years when, at age 51, he passed away on July 13, 1871. Fr. Lennon’s body was placed in a grave at the southeast corner of the church that he built and remained there until it was transferred to St. Mary’s cemetery in 1877. On the occasion of his death, the Newburyport Herald writes, “Thus was buried a good man and a pastor, one whose influence on his people is admitted by people of all sects to have been beneficial to them, and for the interests of the community in which he and they lived.” This proud tradition of community support continues today.
St. Ann & Nativity have 19th Century Roots at IC Parish
As we have noted, the number of Catholics in Newburyport and the surrounding towns was increasing rapidly in the 1860’s. Catholics in Amesbury initially walked the five miles to Newburyport to celebrate Mass with Fr. Lennon. In 1859, arrangements were made for Mass to be said at Washington Hall on Market Street in Amesbury. Finally, plans were developed for a church on the site of what was initially St. Joseph’s Parish.
The Amesbury church was built in 1866 and remained a mission church of Immaculate Conception until 1868 when Rev. John Brady, a curate at Immaculate Conception, was named pastor. This church served the worshippers from Amesbury as well as those from West Newbury and Merrimac (known then as West Amesbury until 1876 when it was separately incorporated).
In 1884, a church was built on Green Street in Merrimac and was dedicated as Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Nativity remained a mission church of Amesbury until 1891. Its first pastor was Fr. Thomas Moylan.
West Newbury Catholics who initially worshipped in Newburyport and subsequently under the Amesbury church, also had connections in Groveland and Georgetown in the 1860s. West Newbury Catholics began to worship in the Old Town Hall with visiting priests from the surrounding parishes. In 1878, ground was broken at the corner of Church and Main Streets for what was to become St. Ann Church. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day 1879 and remained a mission church of Merrimac’s Nativity until 1945.
It could be said, we were a “collaborative” long before we were a collaborative!
Fr. Arthur Teeling Becomes Our Third Pastor
Within weeks of Fr. Lennon’s passing 1871, a new pastor was named. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Fr. Teeling came to the United States at age 3. Educated in Boston Public Schools and Laval University in Quebec, he was 27 years old when he was appointed as Pastor by Bishop Williams in August 1871.
Recognizing that the education of a parish’s youth was closely tied to the future life and strength of that parish, he spared no effort to give his children the best religious training possible. It was his singular objective upon taking over at the Parish.
By the summer of 1873, Fr. Teeling had arranged the purchase of two properties on Court Street. One was the former First Christian Baptist Church and was repurposed immediately for Sunday School classes. A second building, the former Female High School, had been destroyed by fire in 1871. Other pressing matters delayed the school agenda for a time but by 1879, Fr. Teeling was refocused on this objective. Plans were drawn to make use of the two properties that would make up a Girl’s School, a Boy’s School, and an associated Convent to house the Sisters that would be teachers.
Ground was broken for the new school on March 3, 1880. Construction progressed smoothly despite the disruption caused by the destruction of the Rectory by fire in April of 1882. One major building project just became two!
Fr. Teeling was undaunted and proceeded with obtaining the services of nine Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. This would be the first assignment for this order east of their home in Kentucky. The sisters arrived on August 9, 1882: Sister Mary (superior) and Sisters Benigna, Roberta, Gwendoline, Ignatia, Angeline, Louise, Clemenza, and Teresina.
On September 4, 1882 Archbishop Williams celebrated Mass in Newburyport to open formally the first parish school. Five hundred twenty pupils presented themselves to the Sisters. Of this number, 420 transferred from public schools. By 1884, there were over 700 children in the school and fifteen teachers! Our parish continues to recognize the value of a parochial education.
The Parish Needs a Burial Ground
Rev. Teeling had more on his mind than the Parish School. One of his instructions given by Bishop Williams was to secure a burial place for deceased parishioners.
Jacob Balch owned 23 acres on what is now Storey Avenue that was formerly a training ground for the Newburyport militia. On May 4, 1874, this land was purchased by the Parish for $23,000. The cemetery was laid out in the form of a Celtic cross with the center ring becoming the place set aside for the burial of priests.
On June 9, 1876, a Mass was celebrated at the church at 8:00 a.m. Then approximately 2500 people proceeded to the newly designated St. Mary’s Cemetery for the ceremony of consecration by Archbishop Williams. Soon after the consecration, nearly 700 persons were re-buried there from various neighboring cemeteries.
Beautification of the cemetery started immediately with the purchase of 10,000 Norway Spruce and 400 Scotch Pine seedlings. An unused portion of the cemetery was used as a nursery for the young trees. Soon they had grown enough to be used throughout the cemetery and the church grounds. So many remained that they were sold off, yielding a profit for the Parish.
Over the next few decades more land was added to the original lot and a decorative wrought iron fence was added.
Celebrating the Consecration of Our Church
In 1879, it was amazing that our Parish was able to be ready for consecration. At this point in time, only two other churches were set apart for “divine worship.” One of the prerequisites for consecration is that the parish be free from debt. This condition was met despite Rev. Teeling’s spending spree to improve, maintain, and expand the church grounds…spending $65,000 over 8 years! Surely this was a testimony to the parishioners who despite their modest incomes were generous with their donations. The church met the additional requirement that it is to be built from brick or stone.
Prior to consecration Rev. Teeling needed to make a few improvements to the church. It was on this occasion that the 14 paintings that note the Way of the Cross were added. Also, the wonderful marble sanctuary and marble altar were added. The floor of the sanctuary is of gray and white Tennessee marble and the main stairs to the altar are of white Italian marble. The altar, has a simple yet decorative look with over 20 kinds of marble in use. The four marble pillars are incorporated with slabs of American statuary marble and bands of French marble which are themselves inlaid with flowerets of onyx, Galway, and Tennessee marble. The altar was the work of Charles S. Hall & Co. of Boston.
It was on June 24, 1879—144 years ago—that the ritual of consecration occurred. A consecrating prelate, accompanied by attending priests proceeded three times around the church exterior, anointing the walls with holy water. Each time around he knocked on the closed doors reciting the lines from the Psalm 24; “Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in.” After entering the church, the Bishop anointed the threshold with holy oil and proceeded to the consecration of the inside walls. Finally, the altar was consecrated to the sole service of God and in it are placed the relics of “various saints” and carefully sealed.
June 24 represents a special day in the history of Immaculate Conception Church. On this day in 1879, Immaculate Conception church was officially consecrated and became a valid place of Catholic divine worship by order of Archbishop John Williams.
Consecration, in general, is an act by which a thing is separated from the common and becomes sacred..., or by which a person or thing is dedicated to the service and worship of God by prayers, rites, and ceremonies. Consecration is a rite reserved to a bishop, who by the solemn anointing with Holy Chrism with twelve crosses, and in the prescribed form, dedicates a building to the service of God.
The consecration of Immaculate Conception was an important event for its parishioners and a ticket was required for entrance. Mary Walsh, great-great aunt of IC parishioner Mary Bragg, was one of the lucky ones to procure a ticket and attend the event. So important was this event to her family, that her original ticket has been saved by the family for many generations! Thank you, Mary, for sharing this treasured artifact.
The Parish Addresses the Growing Need for Schools
In order to meet the growing need to address the education of the children of Newburyport, Rev. Teeling leased two vacant school buildings. These ten-year leases for $50/year began on October 1,1883.
One of the new locations opened for the benefit of “downalong” children of primary school age was located at 32 Charles Street. The second school for “upalong” children was located at 36 Monroe Street. They became known as the “Guardian Angel” schools. Both properties were subsequently sold and are now residential homes.
By 1886, the 20 Sisters associated with the Parish had outgrown their convent on Court Street. Accordingly, that year, Rev. Teeling purchased the Wills estate at the corner of Washington and Green Streets and remodeled it as a new convent. The old Court Street convent was re-purposed into additional classrooms and rooms for music and literary clubs to meet.
To Seek and Find the Forgotten
The former convent on Court St. had been vacated by the Sisters in 1886 and was re-opened in October 1992 as a Home for Destitute Children. Children of every nationality and ethnicity were cared for here. The home was placed under the supervision of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth: Sisters Bathildes, Petronia, and Mary Beatrice. Within six months, there were ten children being cared for by the sisters and, by 1907, the home was filled to capacity—30 children receiving the care and comfort of the Sisters. In 1916, the building was expanded to include a three-story addition. The home could now accommodate 75 children.
The home closed in 1928 citing the lack of need to address the poor and homeless children of Newburyport. The building itself served as the home for the DeValara Circle of the Daughters of Isabella until it was razed in 1935.
Reverend Teeling's Legacy
Rev Teeling’s legacy can be seen and felt even today. Among the many contributions to Immaculate Conception Parish are the introduction of a parochial school, a consecrated burial ground, and many elements of the church itself. In 1889, Rev. Teeling once more turned his attention to the church for additional improvements. Most importantly, the construction of a spacious sacristy and the installation of the memorial stained-glass windows.
Perhaps you will participate in the church tours being offered on Sunday, July 30. When you look about, please remember the work of Rev. Arthur Teeling. Can you find the memorial window donated by Rev. Teeling in the memory of Rev. Lennon?
Here is Rev. Teeling’s signature found on one of the many real estate transaction documents found in the Diocesan Archives recently.
In April of 1893, Rev. Teeling was appointed Pastor of St. Mary’s in Lynn where he remained until his death in 1927 at the age of 93.
Reverend Ryan: IC's Fourth Pastor
As we resume our journey through the history of the Immaculate Conception Parish, we meet our fourth pastor, Reverend William H. Ryan. The parish had grown from 10 families in 1841 to 4000 Catholics by 1893. The 42-year-old Fr. Ryan was born in Salem (the first IC pastor born in the United States) and was educated at St. Charles College in Maryland and St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. He was ordained a priest on December 19, 1874, in Albany NY. He had assignments in South Boston and East Boston before becoming the Pastor in Beverly, Beverly Farms, Manchester and Ipswich. He was responsible for building various “mission” churches in these communities that have since become independent parishes.
Succeeding Fr. Arthur Teeling, Fr. Ryan took charge of a Parish that was both materially and spiritually in excellent condition. Fr. Ryan served as IC Pastor for thirty-six years and was responsible for many transformative milestones in the Parish history. Over the coming weeks we will share these accomplishments in some detail.
Reverend William Ryan died on January 27, 1929, after a long illness. He was 79.
St. James Chapel, Plum Island
Anxious to provide for the growing number of Catholics summering on Plum Island, Rev. Ryan, on August 10, 1920 announced plans to build a church there. For this purpose, four lots of land were acquired; two purchased by the Parish and two donated by the Plum Island Beach Company. It was almost two years before the church was built and in the meantime Mass was celebrated at the New Pavilion.
By the summer of 1922, St. James Chapel was completed at a cost of $18,000. It was a spacious, wooden structure covered in stucco. The first Mass was celebrated there on June 26, 1922.
St. James Chapel was closed in fall 1996. Eventually the building was razed and the property was sold. Now, the chapel in the current Immaculate Conception Parish Center bears the name St. James Chapel.