A Guide to Boston’s Religiously Significant Sites
From its founding as the Puritan “City on a Hill” in 1630, Boston has played a key role in America’s religious history. Bostonians were instrumental in the establishment of new denominations, as well as in applying Christian traditions to social and political causes. As you plan your visit for the AHA’s annual meeting, here is a guide to some of Boston’s most significant religious sites, highlighting their historical, social, and architectural importance.
Boston’s first Puritan congregation was established in 1632 on State Street; in 1649, members formed a breakaway church in Copley Square. Over the years, the First Church and Second Church were home to famous churchmen like Cotton Mather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Ware Jr. They gradually adopted a more liberal theology, becoming Unitarian after the Civil War. In 1868, First Church moved to its present Back Bay location. In 1968, after a fire destroyed the church, the two congregations merged, building a new structure in 1972 (66 Marlborough St., 617-267-6730).
Several historic churches are located on the Freedom Trail. Built in 1723, the Old North Church (193 Salem St., 617-523-6676) in the North End is Boston’s oldest surviving church. From its steeple in April 1775, Paul Revere and the Episcopal sexton, Robert Newman, lit two lanterns to signal the departure by water of the British regulars to Lexington and Concord. The Old South Meeting House (310 Washington St., 617-482-6439) in Downtown Crossing is Boston’s second-oldest church. Here, colonists held meetings to debate colonial policies, including a tax on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
The Park Street Church (1 Park St., 617-523-3383) is also on the Freedom Trail, next to the Granary Burial Ground. Founded in 1809, it has made notable contributions to cultural, social, and political causes. In 1815, America’s oldest musical organization, the Handel and Haydn Society, was founded here. In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first abolitionist speech from Park Street’s pulpit. In 1949, Billy Graham introduced his evangelical crusades.
Located at the foot of Beacon Hill next to the Harrison Gray Otis House, the Old West Church (1806) (131 Cambridge St., 617-227-5088,) was America’s first integrated congregation and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the 1890s, increasing numbers of immigrants led members to leave the West End, and the structure became the West End branch of the public library, under the direction of librarian Fanny Goldstein, founder of Jewish Book Month. After much of the neighborhood was razed for urban renewal in the 1950s, the Methodist Church purchased the building.
Many Protestant congregations relocated to the newly filled-in Back Bay after 1860. The first was the Arlington Street Church (351 Boylston St., 617-536-7050), designed by Arthur Gilman and famous for its Tiffany windows. Located opposite the Public Garden, it was completed in 1861. Trinity Church (206 Clarendon St., 617-536-0944) was built in Copley Square in 1877. Designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, the Romanesque Revival church contains the work of such artists as John LaFarge, William Morris, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. There are free guided tours and Friday organ concerts. In 1894, Mary Baker Eddy established the First Church of Christ, Scientist (Massachusetts Ave. and Huntington Ave.). A Renaissance Revival basilica was constructed in 1896 to envelop the original granite church. Administration buildings were added later, including those designed by I.M. Pei in 1973. Visitors can tour the plaza and hear free recitals featuring the famed Aeolian-Skinner organ.
Non-Protestant immigrants established their own churches. In 1788, eight years after the state instituted freedom of worship, the first Catholic mass was held in Holy Cross Church, a converted Huguenot Chapel on School Street (near the Old South Meeting House). Charles Bulfinch designed a new church, constructed on Franklin Street in 1803, which served as the diocese’s cathedral from 1808 until 1860. A new Cathedral of the Holy Cross (1400 Washington St., 617-542-5682) was built in 1875 in the South End as the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese. Designed by the Irish-American architect Patrick Keely in the Gothic Revival style, it today serves a vibrant and diverse community.
Other sites of Catholic importance include St. Augustine Cemetery in South Boston, established in 1818, and Mount Benedict Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, built in 1826 as a girls’ school. In 1834, mobs burned the convent in anti-Catholic rioting—a sign of the growing discord between native-born Protestants and Irish Catholics. Catholic immigrants continued to arrive from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Canada, and elsewhere, necessitating the establishment of parishes, schools, and charitable institutions throughout Boston. For example, in 1862, St. Stephen’s Church was established in a re-consecrated Unitarian Church on Hanover Street in the then Irish-dominated North End. Built in 1804, it is Boston’s only extant Bulfinch church. It is also known as the parish of Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy clan. For other Catholic institutions, see www.bostoncatholic.org and www.irishheritagetrail.com.
German and Polish immigrants established Congregation Ohabei Shalom, Boston’s first Jewish congregation, in 1842 in the South End, and the first Jewish cemetery in East Boston in 1849. In 1852, the congregation constructed a synagogue on Warren Street, modeled after Newport’s Touro Synagogue. Increasing membership prompted further moves: in 1863, to the Warrenton Street Universalist Church (now the Charles Playhouse) and in 1886, to the Union Park Street Church (now a Greek Orthodox Church) in the South End. In 1928, the congregation built its current temple center on Beacon Street in Brookline (1187 Beacon St., 617-277-6610).
In 1854, seceding German members formed Congregation Adath Israel on Pleasant Street in the South End. Increasing membership and prominence prompted the congregation to build a Romanesque Revival synagogue on Columbus Avenue (now an AME Zion Church) in 1885. In 1907, it dedicated a Byzantine-style synagogue on Commonwealth Avenue (now owned by Boston University). Home to well-known rabbis like Solomon Schindler, Charles Fleischer, Harry Levi, and Joshua Loth Liebman, the temple was the city’s first Reform synagogue, adopting such practices as a choir and organ, confirmation, and Sunday services (discontinued in 1938). In 1928, it constructed a temple center on the Riverway in the Fenway district. The complex was completed in 1977 with a new sanctuary designed by The Architects Collaborative (477 Longwood Ave., 617-566-3960).
Later Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe continued this pattern of settlement in the North, South, and West Ends, and then movement to the surrounding suburbs. Various Jewish organizations hold walking tours of the former Jewish neighborhoods (see bostonwalks.tripod.com). One of the few remaining synagogue structures in Boston proper is the Vilna Shul in the West End (18 Phillips St., 617-523-2324), established by Jews from Vilna, Lithuania. Modeled after medieval synagogues, the two-story brick building was completed in 1919. The structure was purchased in 1985 by the Boston Center for Jewish Heritage.
The greater Boston area also has active Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities. The city’s Chinatown is the third largest in the United States (after San Francisco and New York), first populated in the 1870s by groups of Chinese laborers and laundrymen. Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants first arrived in the early 1900s to work in the Quincy granite mines. They formed the state’s first Islamic cultural society in 1934 and the first mosque in 1964. Islam was also increasing among Boston’s African American population during the civil rights era. Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan helped to organize local congregations of the Nation of Islam in Roxbury and Dorchester in the 1950s and 1960s. The Dorchester mosque moved more toward traditional teachings in the 1970s. In 1958, Middle Eastern Muslim students organized the Harvard Islamic Society; in 1981, the society joined with other groups at local universities to form the Islamic Society of Boston. By 1994, it had expanded to include families and established a new mosque in a Cambridge Knights of Columbus hall. Continued growth encouraged fundraising for a new mosque and cultural center to be built in Roxbury on land purchased from the city. Although ground was broken in 2002, problems with permits, neighborhood resistance, and accusations of extremist funding for the project after the events of September 11, 2001, have delayed the structure’s completion.
Hopefully, this short guide to Boston’s religiously significant sites has given you some information to help you plan your trip. Enjoy your visit!
Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan is a visiting assistant professor at Boston College and the archivist at Temple Israel, Boston. Her dissertation is entitled, “Ethnic Patriotism: Boston’s Irish and Jewish Communities, 1880–1929.” Dwyer-Ryan is co-author of Becoming American Jews: Temple Israel, 1854–2004 (Brandeis University Press, 2009) and has contributed to various journals and publications.Last Updated: December 29, 2010 5:04 PM