Boston, today that most Catholic of American cities, had no Catholic church within 300 miles when Father Jean-Louis Lefebvre Cheverus arrived in 1796.
The 600 or so Catholics living in Massachusetts were mostly poor Irish and a few French. They were viewed as ‘an impure assemblage of idolators’ and priests were widely regarded as ‘vile imposters.’ Catholic teachings were ‘a hideous collection of impieties, absurdities and errors.’
Cheverus softened some of the anti-Catholicism that had possessed puritanical Massachusetts since the colony’s founding. The Puritans had fought Catholic influence in England for decades, and early colonists fought the Catholic French throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cheverus spent 27 years in New England, during which time he impressed people with his learning, with his tact, with his sermons, with his simplicity and with his kindness toward the sick and the poor.
Cheverus left quite a mark on New England: in Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine; in Cheverus Hall, a dorm at Boston College, Cheverus Centennial School, in Malden, Mass., in the Archdiocese of Boston Cheverus Awards and in a book that rests on the shelves of the Boston Athenaeum, A memorial to Bishop Cheverus, with a catalogue of the books given by him to the Boston Athenaeum, by Walter Muir Whitehill.
Cheverus Arrives in New England
The priests who preceded Cheverus gave Puritan Boston good reason to look down on Catholics.
The first resident Catholic priest Boston was a disreputable French naval chaplain, l’abbe de la Poterie, who deserted when the French fleet left Boston Harbor at the end of the American Revolution. De la Poterie celebrated the first Catholic Mass in Boston in 1788. But he had been suspended from the priesthood in France, ran up debt in Boston and was relieved of his duties by Father John Carroll, who had begun to organize the Catholic church in America from Maryland.
The second resident Catholic priest in Boston was Father Rousselet, who had also been suspended from the priesthood in France. During Christmas Eve Mass in 1789, de la Poterie insisted on participating in the service, which sparked fisticuffs among the parishioners. The brawlers broke all the church’s furniture.
Then John Thayer arrived on his own accord. He was a wealthy Congregationalist minister who converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. He tried to take over from Rousselet. The Irish supported Thayer, the French supported Rousselet. As a result, only a few Catholics actually attended Sunday Mass.
Finally, the highly respected Father Francis Anthony Matignon arrived in Boston in 1792 and began to put things right. He wrote to his friend Father Cheverus and asked him to join him as a Catholic missionary.
Cheverus was 28 when he arrived in 1796. For four years he had been living in England, a refugee from the French Revolution.
Groaning in Spirit
Shortly after arriving in Boston, he began to travel New England to search out Catholics. In Massachusetts he went to Newburyport, Plymouth and Salem. In New Hampshire he traveled to Portsmouth, Claremont and Bedford.
He traveled by canoe and horseback to Maine, where he ‘groaned in spirit’ at the condition of the Catholics, according to his biographer, Andre Jean Marie Hamon. Cheverus dedicated the first Catholic church in Newcastle, and ministered to the Penobscot Indians in Old Town, who had been converted to Christianity but hadn’t seen a Catholic priest in 50 years. During his time in New England, Cheverus visited the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians for three months every year.
Cheverus began to win over the Catholic haters. His delivered short, sweet and therefore popular sermons. He took care of the sick and buried the dead when yellow fever broke out in Boston.
Cheverus lived simply and read widely in English classic literature. He advised John Adams’ nephew, William Smith Shaw, on the founding of the Boston Athenaeum and donated some of his books to it.
After he’d been in Boston a year a Protestant came to him. “I did not believe that a minister of your religion could be a good man,” he said. “I declare to you, that I esteem and venerate you, as the most virtuous man that I have ever known.”
Protestant women of high social standing shared their troubles with him. He handled the financial affairs of widows, orphans, servants, the infirm and people naive about business. Cheverus invested their money judiciously and then brought them the interest.
During a dinner in Boston honoring President John Adams, Cheverus sat next to him. “What most astonishes me, on this occasion, is, to see myself here, and to see you here,” Adams said.
When Cheverus started raising money for a church, John Adams made the first donation. In the fall of 1803, Baltimore Bishop John Carroll came to the dedication of Holy Cross, attended by both Catholics and Protestants.
Carroll named Cheverus the first Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston, and he was ordained on Nov. 1, 1810. There were three Catholic churches with priests in New England then: in Boston, in Damariscotta Mills, Maine, and in Pleasant Point, Maine.
Catholics revered him so much they named their children John after him. Even Protestants invited him to speak in their churches. In 1809, he went to New York City to dedicate St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Cheverus wasn’t beloved everywhere, nor were Catholics even liked. When he traveled to Northampton, Mass., he had a hard time finding a place to stay because of prejudice against Catholics.
He had gone to Northampton because two young Irish Catholic men were convicted of murder and condemned to death. They wrote to Cheverus, protesting their innocence and asked him to come give the funeral service for them. He ministered to them, and then stood in front of the mob that came to watch them hanged. He then scolded the horde.
Father Thayer, the Yankee priest, died in Ireland in 1810. He left his estate to Father Matignon, who told Cheverus to establish an Ursuline convent with the money. Cheverus brought 12 Ursuline nuns to Boston to educate Boston’s Catholic girls. In 1834, a mob of Know Nothings burned the convent to the ground.
Cheverus Returns to France
When John Carroll died in 1815, his successor asked Cheverus to come to Baltimore to serve as an auxiliary. He refused.
Then Father Matignon died three years later. By then Cheverus’ health was failing, and in 1823 Louis XVIII of France insisted he return to his native country. Though his parishioners protested, Cheverus decided to go back to France. He was named cardinal in 1836 but died shortly thereafter, aged 68.
William Ellery Channing, the foremost Unitarian minister of his age, held up Cheverus as an argument against anti-Catholicism.:
Who among our religious teachers would solicit a comparison between himself and the devoted Cheverus? . . . How can we shut our hearts against this proof of the Catholic religion to form good and great men? . . . It is time that greater justice were done to this ancient and widespread community.
This story was updated in 2021.