On Christmas morning, 1878, a young pastor named Father John P. Ryan celebrated Mass in the lower church at St. John the Evangelist. It was the first Mass in the still-unfinished church, which back then was only a ghostly beginning of the imposing granite edifice that still stands today on Church Street.
But the excitement in the pews, filled with hard-working Irish immigrants who had financed and built the church, was unmistakable.
“Never did the pealing anthems resound more joyously than did our heartfelt Alleluias on that happy morn,” recounted D. Hamilton Hurd in “History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. “”The very air of heaven seemed to re-echo with the joyous ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ and the sublime strain of the ‘Credo.’”
On Christmas Day of 2015, St. John’s and downtown will resonate with another glorious noise. The bell atop St. John’s will be rung to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Hopkinton’s first Catholic parish. The bell, which once hung in Hopkinton’s first Catholic church, St. Malachi’s on Cedar Street, was rung for the first time in decades last month to mark this milestone. The ringings on Christmas Day will take place after each Mass.
A group of St. John’s parishioners have been researching their church’s proud history in honor of the occasion.
“The story of St. John's is truly a chapter in the history of Hopkinton,” said Mary Kniaz, a member of St. John's Anniversary Committee. “It's so fitting that as the 300th anniversary of the town draws to a close, we now turn to the fascinating story of its 150-year-old Catholic parish and the building of St. John the Evangelist.”
The bell-ringing is just part of a year-long celebration of Catholicism in Hopkinton, culminating in a Mass on October 23, 2016, celebrated by Cardinal Sean O’Malley at the church.
Kniaz and others have been researching the history of Catholicism in Hopkinton for the past few months, combing through dozens of documents, books and old newspaper articles. St. John’s is also proposing a restoration to bring the church back to its original design.
The church’s genesis can be traced back to the first Irish Catholics in Hopkinton, who arrived in the 1830s. Waves of Irish immigrants would follow in the next few decades, driven from home by famine and persecution and lured to Hopkinton by its abundant jobs in the shoe industry. Mass was their solace from poverty and grueling 60-hour workweeks.
In the beginning their only choice for worship was to travel to makeshift churches in people’s homes, most of them in Milford. Later, a Milford priest, father James McDonough, would say Mass every month at a grocer’s home on East Main Street, Hopkinton. But as Hopkinton’s Catholic population grew, this became impractical.
Encouraged by Hopkinton resident John Wilson, who was Protestant, a group of Catholics met to discuss building their own church. St. Malachi’s, Hopkinton’s first Catholic Church opened on Cedar Street in 1851. In 1866, with the appointment of its first pastor, Thomas Barry, Hopkinton officially became a Catholic parish.
It would be Father Ryan who had the biggest impact on the church as we know it today. Assigned six years after Hopkinton became a parish, the 27-year-old pastor saw soon that St. Malachi’s was insufficient for the growing Catholic population in Hopkinton. He rallied his parishioners to raise $6,000 to buy land on Church Street for a larger church.
On May 15, 1877, Archbishop Williams of Boston laid the cornerstone of St. John the Evangelist. Father Ryan would travel back and forth on his horse from his home to the site. The church – built and financed by immigrants from their paltry earnings – slowly took shape.
“The history of its construction is, most distinctively, the heart offerings of a parish wealthy only in Christian devotion and benevolence, and numerous only in expressions of loyalty and piety,” noted former Pastor Rev. James Degnan in a 1991 report.
But Father Ryan’s long hours building the church and serving his growing flock would take their toll. In 1881, three years after he said that Christmas Day Mass, he died from spinal meningitis after a period of growing weakness and declining health. He was just 36.
All of Hopkinton, Catholics and Protestants alike, mourned his passing. Main Street stores and the Town Hall closed down on the day of his funeral out of respect. Led by Father Ryan’s faithful horse, draped in black, the funeral procession marched along Church, Maple and Pleasant streets. Around town, signs offered condolences.
“His death is a loss, great and irreparable, to those of all nationalities, all classes, all creeds,” said an obituary in The Hopkinton Banner, a newspaper from those times.
While Father Ryan was gone, the work on his church continued, but it suffered some setbacks. About $12,000 was needed to pay off the original $25,000 loan. The devastating 1882 fire destroyed some of the shoe factories where parishioners worked; one of the biggest ones, Bridges and Co., would move their operations to Framingham afterwards. The church would not be completed until 1889, eight years after Father Ryan died.
But it has survived and flourished since then, through boom times and tough times. In late November, St. John the Evangelist celebrated Hopkinton’s 150th year as a parish by ringing its church bell for the first time in decades – the same bell that had originally hung in St. Malachi’s tower. That makes the bell over 150 years old.
“We felt a little apprehensive when some of us met in the choir loft to rehearse the bell tolling. Was the bell in working order? What would happen when the men gave that dangling rope a good pull?” recounted Kniaz. “Gazing up, we were thrilled to hear the bell's first, deep peals, and then the next thing we knew, the rope was falling to our feet!” Parishioner Brian Johnston saved the day when he climbed the formidable height to the bell, made a repair, and re-attached the rope.
Far below that bell tower are the remains of the man whose spirit made St. John’s possible: Father John Ryan. A plaque marks where he was interred, a reminder of the formidable challenges the church faced and overcame.