Saint Leonard of Port Maurice
Corner of Hanover and Prince Streets
North End of Boston, Massachusetts
St. Leonard Church
From Then to Now
St. Leonard's Church, founded in 1873, is the first Roman Catholic Church in New England built by Italian immigrants. Located in the historic North End of Boston, the church building sits at the corner of Hanover and Prince Streets on the second loop of Boston's Freedom Trail. St. Leonard's is known to many visitors for its Saint Anthony shrine located in the downstairs church, the oldest shrine dedicated to the Saint in Boston. The beautiful Peace Garden adjoining the church provides a serene haven in which visitors can escape the bustle of Hanover Street.
Dante said that every stone of the walls of the city of Rome were sacred to him because these stones were silent reminders of the great achievements of the ancient Fathers of the city. We here at Saint LeonardŐs re-echo with equal pride the same sentiments as Dante, holding dear and sacred not only the walls of our church, but the zeal and courage of those early Franciscan friars, sisters and good people of the North End who, in the face of grave hardships and difficulties, laid the humble beginnings of our parish. From this tiny nucleus grew our parish as we see it today, growing as a tiny acorn to the mighty oak. Countless sacrifices are the price of success. Great indeed was the price that these early pioneers paid to see their labors among the Italian people of Boston crowned with success. Today this Church of Saint Leonard stands as a living and lasting testimony to their heroic work.
Before the year 1870 there were very few Italians living in the city of Boston. However, in the few succeeding years the number of Italians arriving in Boston increased dramatically. Yet, though they had left home and country to find material success in a new world, these people, descendents of a nation that has always been loyal to the church, could not and would not be neglected spiritually. Hence, there arose a great necessity of attending to the spiritual needs of these people, who were complete strangers to the language and customs of this new land.
Thus it was that in the year 1873, Archbishop Williams of Boston called upon the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province, many of whom had but recently arrived in this country, to minister to the spiritual needs of the Italian immigrants in Boston. Fr. Angelo Conterno, O.F.M., was the first Franciscan to work in the new harvest. He was the first pastor of the newly founded parish. Immediately, Fr. Conterno made plans to erect a church. However, his plans did not come to fruition until later. In the month of February 1874, Fr. Joachim Guerrini, O.F.M., came to Boston to continue his work. Plans were already made to erect a church in the North End for Italians. In the meantime, a church on North Bennet Street, the site of a library now served for both the Italian and the Portuguese people. Two years later, a lot of land situated on Prince Street and measuring seventy four by thirty feet, was purchased for a little less than $9,000.00. The foundations were then laid for the first Italian parish in the United States. The following November, on the Feast of St. Leonard, it was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Williams.
With the advent of more immigrants the small church proved inadequate and the need for a larger church became more pressing. In 1885 the work of clearing the additional land bought for the site of the new church began. In November of 1891 the basement of the new church was opened for public worship, after having been blessed by Archbishop Williams. The number of parishioners then was close to twenty thousand. The upper church was built at the cost of $160,000.00 and was dedicated in November 1899. At the same time the friary on North Bennet Street was built. That brought to completion the present edifice, the famed Saint Anthony Shrine in the lower church and the main church above.
The first Sisters, the Franciscan Sisters, arrived on June 13, 1902, and St. Anthony School was opened on September 17 with the enrollment of about 200 children in grades 1-3. At this time the school was housed in parish property on North Bennet Place. In the years following 1904 the building was constructed on North Bennet Street which was to house the parish school for the next forty-eight years. The school opened on February 12, 1907, with an enrollment of 400 children.
During the years after 1910 the restoration of the upper church was undertaken and the Franciscan Sisters moved into the convent on 31 Prince Street. The fatal influenza epidemic of 1917 - 1919 had left many Italian children in the Boston area orphans. The then Pastor, Fr. Anthony Sousa, founded the Home for the Italian Children in Jamaica Plain which remains even to this day.
Perhaps one of the most memorable events of the parish's history occurred on May 1, 1926, when 10,000 people of the parish marched in procession from St. Leonard Church to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. In 1926 the erection of the present convent on North Bennet Place was initiated. It was built at the cost of $90,000.00; in 1927 a summer house was purchased at Nantasket Beach, St. AnthonyŐs Villa, to provide recreational facilities for the youth of the North End.
In the period which followed the religious societies flourished, particularly the Third Order of St. Francis, which rose to a membership of 2,000, the largest in the country. In later years the parish could boast of active dramatic societies, three different bands and a school where the enrollment went over 1,000 students. So many good friars, sisters and members of the parish here in the North End and beyond spent their energies, talents and gifts, here. Dreams were realized. Ideas came alive.
In the past couple of decades, the Parish has seen an influx of young professionals and graduate students moving into the area. They have taken their places in our parish by choice. We hope that this will be the beginning of a new life for the future of the parish. A wise man once said that if we do not from time to time gratefully remember the past, we would be unable to see anything worth looking at in the present. The parish family of St. Leonard continues as a vibrant and vital part of the church in Boston. It's rich history, strong heritage and living legacy encourages us all! We wish to commit ourselves to the ideal of continuing the traditions of St. Leonard as a channel of the Lord's peace and love, not only to the good people of the North End of Boston, but to all who have been part of the life of the parish; to all who just pass through as a brother or sister visiting.
First Baptism: October 5, 1873 - Rose Cuneo, daughter of Gaspare Cuneo and Teresa Cuneo
First Confirmation: June 5, 1878 - Archbishop Williams 52 boys, 56 girls
First Marriage: September 12, 1873 - Pietro Guidi and Louisa Rappetto
First Forty Hours Devotion in New England conducted here at St. Leonard's
Devotions to St. Anthony in New England began here at the original Shrine of St. Anthony