Population increases fuel parish growth

By Robert Johnson Lally
Archdiocesan Archivist and Records Manager



Then-Archbishop Richard Cushing celebrates the centennial of St. Mary Church in Lowell Oct. 12, 1953. (Pilot file photo/ Phil Stack)
Last month we looked at the impact the growth of the immigrant population had on the increase in parishes. From the mid-19th century through the mid 20th century, growth came in dramatic spurts, fueled by three key events: the construction boom after the Civil War, industrialization, and the Baby Boom of the mid 20th century.

When Bishop John J. Williams became the fourth bishop of Boston in 1866, there were 200,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese, 109 parishes and about 25 institutions, including orphanages and hospitals. The Civil War had just ended, and there was a construction boom. Irish immigrants in particular became more prosperous and moved out of the North End into South Boston, Brighton and Charlestown. Bishop Williams accommodated the population shift by creating parishes in these growing communities.

By the time Williams died in 1907, the number of parishes had almost doubled to 194. That number becomes even more impressive when we take into account the fact that the Archdiocese of Boston, which originally had encompassed all of New England, had been divided several times, with each state, along with Springfield, now having its own diocese. (The Diocese of Springfield included Worcester until 1950, when Worcester became its own diocese.)

In the early 20th century, the population of the Archdiocese was at 850,000. Industrialization, specifically the textile, shoe and leather businesses, had resulted in growth further from Boston: towns like Quincy, Duxbury and Plymouth in the South, and Peabody, Lawrence and Lowell in the North. There was also expansion within the Boston neighborhoods. Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who served from 1906 through 1944, brought the number of parishes to 325.

The largest number of parishes was in place to serve the baby-boomer generation, during the time Cardinal Richard J. Cushing was Archbishop. At its peak, which was in the mid 1960s, the number reached 411. When Cardinal Cushing died in 1970, there were three-and-a-half million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston.

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