This article is transcribed from an uncredited 1946 booklet about St. Margaret Parish, tracing the parish all the way back to rented space in a barn/nightclub on what is now called Beacon Street. When this booklet was written, the church was located on the fork of Winn and Center Streets, near the power lines. Don’t let the booklet title confuse you. It’s dubbed “First Annual Reunion” because the NAME was a year old. Before 1945, the parish was called St. Mary’s Mission.
The story of St. Margaret’s Church in Burlington, MA is the story of an ardent love of Christ, deep-rooted in Catholic hearts. It is the story of sacrifice cheerfully borne, of early struggling against great odds, a tale of labor and disappointment, of sorrow and joy.
The town of Burlington is a small town, located fifteen miles north of Boston, and bounded by Woburn, Lexington, Billerica, Bedford, and Wilmington.
It is a town of great distances, of large farms, of scattered population, of small home communities, and of not a few isolated residences completely hidden from view and in snows of winter almost inaccessible.
The Catholics in this typical New England town numbered very few in the beginning. Their spiritual needs were filled by the priests of Woburn and the town was rated a Woburn mission.
But these few were Catholics of stout hearts, and deep religious convictions. They did not suffer their faith to weaken or allow it to die. Distances, long distances, meant little to them. Faithfully, throughout the years, despite inclement weather and sacrifice entailed, the Catholic Church in Woburn, on Sundays and Holidays, had its quota of Burlington Catholics, both young and old, eager to give honor and thanksgiving to God.
The seed of faith planted in their hearts found at the outset most fertile soil. Cultivated by the deeply solicitous Woburn clergy it took hold quickly and grew very strong. The spiritual bond between the many Catholics of Woburn and the few of Burlington became most evident. And so it came as a complete surprise when the astounding news was announced that in October of 1937, at the will of the Cardinal, Archbishop of Boston, the Catholics of Burlington were to sever their relationship with the church at Woburn and became a mission of the newly-established St. Mary’s Parish in Pinehurst. For the Catholics in Burlington this opening of the second chapter in their history proved to be a mixed blessing — it possessed advantages and disadvantages alike.
The great advantage was found in the new pastor and first pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Pinehurst. He was Rev. Charles Johnson, who formerly served as a curate in both Cambridge and Stoughton. He was truly a man of God — zealous and able as well as eager from the beginning to act as loving Shepherd of this Burlington flock. His interest in their spiritual welfare went hand in hand with his priestly solicitude for his parish in Pinehurst.
To the Catholics of Burlington themselves, however, the amalgamation with St. Mary’s in Pinehurst did not make matters easier. Above and beyond all else it did not shorten, but actually increased, the distances many people were obliged to travel in order to attend Mass on Sundays.
Pinehurst was too far away — that truth was positive and distance means a great deal to those who for the most part must trudge in the deep snows of winter as well as merciless summer sun. For this reason, therefore, many still clung to Woburn. They rarely, if ever, went to their new Mother Church in Pinehurst. True, they belonged there in name, but in fact they paid allegiance to Woburn.
Thus was the mission divided at its very beginning and the struggling Catholics of Burlington found themselves no better off than before the change was effected. It did not take Father Johnson very long to appraise the situation. Living in Pinehurst, and traveling among his people in Burlington, he soon learned of the difficulties they encountered, especially those in the Woburn end of the town who were expected to attend Mass in faraway Pinehurst.
Before a month had passed by after his arrival, he called a meeting of the Catholics in the Town Hall of Burlington in order to discuss and make plans for the celebration of Holy Mass among them. In this manner were the steps taken in the beginning for the establishment of the Catholic Church in Burlington. The meeting was well-attended and all present were very enthusiastic, so that the most favorable results were immediately obtained.
A short time afterwards, as a result of this meeting, a building committee of 14 men was formed with Mr. Alphonse Ruel as temporary and later permanent chairman. The task was to commence activities without delay for the construction of a suitable place of worship. Serving with Mr. Ruel, the other members of this committee were: George Gormley, Alfred Guerette, Raymond LeFerve, Thomas Mohan, Elmer Morrison, William MacDonald, Henry Perry, Timothy Santry, Edward Sousa, Maurice Sweeney, Charles White, Maurice O’Connor and David Ward.
Behind this committee the parishioners rallied and activities began in earnest toward raising funds for the church building. The men canvassed house to house, gaining pledges of financial support for their initial effort. They called themselves “St. Mary’s Building Committee of Burlington,” and on October 25, 1938, they became incorporated and received a charter from the state. The officers were President Alphonse Ruel, Vice President Timothy Santry, Secretary Elmer Morrison and treasurer William MacDonald.
At last steps were actually taken toward the acquisition of a Catholic Church in Burlington, and great was the joy of all concerned when on November 30, 1938, a little over a month after the committee’s incorporation, final arrangements for the purchase of a site for the proposed Chapel were completed. For weeks Mr. Ruel had been negotiating with the Edison Company toward the purchase from them of a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Center and Winn Streets, and comprising about two acres. The transfer was completed during the week of November 30, 1938, and the purchase price was $500.
Do not make the error at this point, however, of confining the activities to those men alone. The women, too, were equally busy. Though unorganized as a Guild before May of 1939, they had worked harmoniously and zealously together from the very beginning conducting whist parties, penny sales, dances and various other forms of entertainment — all in the effort to swell the funds of the treasury.
And how they succeeded! They men would successively plan some progress entailing added financial burden, and the women again and again would rally together and present them the necessary funds to meet the bill. Never was a parish more united — never a people more enthusiastic.
In the meantime, shortly after the Town Hall meeting of 1937, a temporary place for Mass within the town limits had been acquired. Humble though it surely was, it was the most suitable place that could be obtained at the time. It was a barn located on Lowell Street, not far from Winn Street, and formerly known as the Winnmere Inn. Later on and to this day, it was known as is spoken of merely as “The Barn.”
It had already served for a time as a nightclub, but had been idle and empty for about a year when Father Johnson acquired it. The rental was $15 per month, and the cleaning and renovation became the task of the parishioners.
What they accomplished is local history.
Thrilled by the fact that at last they were no longer obliged to go to Woburn or Pinehurst, but were to have a place of their very own, they set themselves to cleaning the barn with a strong will. For two weeks they worked like beavers, and practically transformed the whole interior. Enthusiastic workers spent their evenings ripping out, renovating and decorating, so the barn could hardly be recognized as its former self. A one-pipe furnace was kindly donated and installed in the cellar. Altar, vestments, candles and linen were gathered together while eager house-to-house collectors reported a steadily increasing generosity and interest. And so, on October 31, 1937, the Feast Day of Christ the King, in a stable quite as lowly as the one in Bethlehem, Christ first came among His own on an altar in Burlington.
Father Johnson was the celebrant of the Mass; Thomas J. Mohan, son of Selectman and Mrs. Mohan, was the altar boy, while the happy congregation numbered about a hundred people. The first great leap had been taken and the Catholic Church of Burlington was no longer a dream.
The story of those pioneer days Catholicity in Burlington would be neither accurate nor complete if the name of Father Laurence Herne, S.J., were omitted. He was a Jesuit teacher stationed in Boston College, and a lifelong intimate friend of Father Johnson. Hand in hand with Father Johnson and his curates in turn, Father McNamara and Father McKeon, he labored without compensation for the newly established Burlington mission. He was the celebrant of Sunday Mass in the Barn most of the time that it served as Chapel.
Joy in life is usually a forerunner of sorrow — hope is often but a short step ahead of despair! So it was with the Shepherd and his flock and “The Barn” that afforded them shelter. Despite the work and love bestowed upon it, The Barn became a bitter disappointment. The winter’s cold of 1937 paid no need to its inadequate, one-pipe furnace. Its wide cracks and large knotholes welcomed the chilly blasts of winter so that Priest and people suffered intensely while celebrating and attending Divine Worship.
There became a gradual falling off in numbers — the hands of the Priest, numb with cold, could hardly hold the sacred vessels nor could his benumbed fingers firmly grasp the Holy Eucharist. Not wholly unexpected then, was Father Herne’s announcement that he could no longer endure the rigors of winter in such a flimsy shelter, and no wonder either that those who shivered with him readily joined in their approval.
And so in early December of 1938 the doors of The Barn were finally closed, and with their closing the good Catholics of Burlington ended the second chapter in their church’s history. The 13 months in which this barn was used as the Chapel in Burlington saw considerable activity among the Catholic congregation. Two Sunday Masses were celebrated there in the beginning, but only one Sunday Mass was said during the bitter winter of 1937 and 1938.
During this time progress toward the erection of a church at Center and Winn Streets was going on apace. The land had been purchased and necessary funds were being raised but not a sod had been turned, nor a posthole dug when, on December 11, 1938, the first Mass in another barn — the Sousa Barn on Peach Orchard Road — was celebrated by Father Herne.
From many points of view the change was for the better. The second barn was about the same size as the first one, but it was more sturdily built, possessing a fine wooden floor instead of the concrete, brick and wooden mixture previously experienced, and above all, it was much more comfortable in winter.
The altar in the first barn, obtained in the beginning from Pinehurst, was transferred together with all other church property to the new location. The old organ, too, was moved; but now to a much more appropriate position, for it was placed in a hayloft, called the “choir gallery” and to which by a ladder the organist and singers, with some difficulty, ascended.
For 18 months in this second place of worship, the Catholics faithfully assembled on Sundays and Holidays, and they didn’t move elsewhere until on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1940, the First Mass was celebrated in the new Chapel they had erected at the fork of Center and Winn Streets.
The building of this Chapel is a unique story. The land had been purchased in November, 1938, and on August, 1939, the ground was broken and work actually started. Every man on the building committee pledged himself to the digging of postholes in which the foundation piers would be built, and every man reported and every posthole was dug.
From then on in a spirit of friendly rivalry and happy camaraderie, these men, with others, and some of them non-Catholic, labored whenever they could spare the time. Evenings, after their own work was done, and until darkness stopped their endeavors and on holidays likewise — masons, carpenters, helpers, for the most part unskilled though willing — all doing their best under Mr. Ruel’s supervision.
No wonder, then, that the culmination of their efforts on May 12, 1940, found prayers of fervent thanksgiving on the lips and in the hearts of this devoted congregation! Their long-cherished dream had met its fulfillment, and Burlington had a Catholic Church really its own!
I dare say there was never a noble worked performed in the church, or elsewhere for that matter, that was completely devoid of the influence of women. So, too in this work — the women counted and counted greatly. St. Margaret’s Chapel owes its very existence to not only the personal labor and sacrifice of men, but to the untiring efforts and loving devotion of women. They were the inspiration that resulted in progress.
A year before the opening of the Chapel and three months before the digging of the foundation, they organized themselves at the suggestion of Mrs. Anne Dupee, into an association known as the Catholic Women’s Guild of Burlington. No longer did they work individually but now rather as a unit they fostered and aided the church building project.
The date of their beginning as a Guild was May 10, 1939, and 26 women attended the frist meeting. They elected Mrs. Teresa Ward as their first President, who was followed in turn by Mrs. Margaret O’Connor. Mrs. Mary Flaherty and Mrs. B. Christina Keene. The term of office has been two years and each of the last three mentioned served as Vice President preceding their election as head of the organization.
The Secretaryship has been held in turn by Miss Ruth and Mrs. Helene Vigneau, Mrs. Agnes Azevedo and Mrs. Blanche Murray. The Treasurers have been Mrs. Mary Flaherty, Mrs. B. Christina Keene, Mrs. Helene Vigneau and Mrs. Agnes Azevedo.
At the present time the Guild numbers 80 members and their work of accumulating funds for the church still continues. Weekly whist parties are held in different homes in the parish and entertainments of all sorts throughout the year are provided. Never have they been known to turn a deaf ear to a plea for assistance and today, the work so nobly begun by all of its members’ will is an inspiration and a wonderment to those who learn of it.
May God bless and prosper the Catholic Women’s Guild of Burlington!
When, on September, 1942, Father Johnson went to St. John’s Seminary for his yearly retreat, he was a very happy and contented man. He had witnessed the fruition of his planning and labors in Burlington and he was justifiably proud that under his supervision the First Catholic Church there had become a reality.
He rejoiced that the difficult days spent in both barns were over — that at last a united and happy congregation had built with their own hands their own beautiful wayside Chapel. He took considerable satisfaction also from the fact that the work was paid for as it went along, that no money was owed and no bills were outstanding. And then, just two weeks before he went on retreat, he received a zealous and able new curate, a Father William Cooney, and in this fact also he was supremely happy and he dreamt great things for the future of Burlington. Surely the sun shone brightly on that September morning when Father Johnson went on Retreat.
Many of the priests on Retreat with him recall today how, with is face wreathed in smiles, he recounted the trials and joys of his Burlington Mission, and how hopeful he was of the Mission’s future. They recall also how on Friday morning, with more than a hundred fellow priests, he climbed the hill to the library to attend the Retreat Masters conference.
And then the end came as he reached his seat in the library — it came of a sudden — so sudden, indeed that it took a little time before the priests in the hall realized it. Father Johnson dropped to the floor of a heart attack and death had come to him in an instant. Astounded fellow priests kneeling about his prostrate form and praying the prayers for his departed soul while the last Sacrament was being administered marks the end of the third chapter in the long story being told of St. Margaret’s in Burlington.
The second Pastor of St. Mary’s in Pinehurst came a month after the death of Father Johnson. He was Father James A. Donoghue, and he came from Hyde Park where he served many years as a curate.
He found the mission in Burlington externally completed; an adequate heating plant already in the building, a mahogany altar as well as a vestment case, the gift of Father Golding of Medford; the complete necessities for Divine Service, the property entirely clear of debt and $1,300 in the treasury. Then, on Nov. 3, 1942, the Building Committee of the church in the name of the Catholics of Burlington presented the entire property as it stood to the Archdiocese of Boston.
At this juncture in the church’s progression, it would have been difficult to find a better man than Father Donoghue to succeed the work of Father Johnson. he it was who obtained for the church the name St. Margaret, placing it under her loving protection, and he it was who, with great thought, planned and completed the beautifying of the interior. In Colonial simplicity it stands today not only as a monument to the good Catholics of Burlington and to Father Johnson as well, but also and in no small measure as a monument to the solicitude and wisdom of Father Donoghue. It is a church of simplicity and a church of prayer.
Those who now visit it express great admiration for the effectiveness of simple beauty. They speak enthusiastically of its many small-paned Colonial windows, its gray and white paneled walls and ceiling, its mahogany stained pews seating 260, its Colonial-styled altar and altar rail in keeping, which, by the way, is the result of Father Donoghue’s handiwork. Nor do they fail to mention the beautiful Stations of the Cross and the simple, artistic electric chandeliers, which brilliantly illuminate its interior splendor.
Little wonder that Father Donoghue was well-satisfied with the work he completed and no wonder at all that Archbishop Cushing expressed great admiration when, on October 13, 1945, he came to Burlington and blessed the edifice. Incidentally, it was the first Church that the Archbishop blessed after he became Archbishop of Boston.
The pastorate of Father Donoghue, as far as St. Margaret’s Church was concerned, was very short. It ended abruptly on Nov. 21, 1945. St. Margaret’s was considered of sufficient standing to be declared by the Archbishop a separate parish. And so Father Donoghue bade goodbye to the church for which he had done so much and to the people he and Father Cooney had so zealously served. A new page had been opened, a new chapter begun, and the first pastor of St. Margaret’s had at last been appointed.
If, and there is little doubt of it, Father Donoghue felt badly in bidding farewell to Burlington, his successor felt pleased in saying hello. He was bequeathed, as it were, a splendid parish, which though still in its infancy held great promise. Yes, Father Francis G. Shields, the first Pastor, was very pleased.
He came from St. Augustine’s Church in South Boston, where he had labored for several years. He is just now beginning his labors in Burlington and the future road lies open before him. Cognizant of the fact that he is surely fortunate in being made Pastor of so fine a people, he entertains no fear as down this highway he, the Shepherd, leads his God-fearing and God-loving flock.
May Him whom they serve grant them all, without exception, the manifold graces and blessings to carry on!
Here’s the building at the fork of Winn and Center Streets, the third place of Catholic worship in Burlington.
And here’s the rest of the story, from the church’s own website:
On May 13, 1946, Fr. Shields negotiated the purchase of the Walker Farm on Winn Street, directly opposite Peach Orchard Road. The property, including farmhouse, garage, and about nine acres of land was a beautiful site for any development. The farmhouse became known as St. Margaret’s Rectory. During this period, the parish grew rapidly. On January 2, 1947, Fr. Denis J. Fitzpatrick assumed duties as the new pastor of St. Margaret’s. It was Fr. Fitzpatrick who masterminded the building expansion soon to begin. Finally, in October of 1955, His Eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing, gave permission for the parish to build a new, much larger church.
The new church, in outward appearance a combination of Colonial and Romanesque, was designed by architect Edward T. P. Graham. The style was conservative and along traditional lines favored by Fr. Fitzpatrick. The blessing of St. Margaret’s new lower church as held on the morning of November 30, 1957. The altars for the upper church had not arrived, delaying completion of work. The last Mass in the old church was held on Christmas Day, 1957. The new church, now completed with marble altars and railings, was formally dedicated on February 2, 1958 by the Archbishop of Boston, Most Reverend Richard J. Cushing.
In order to address the growing problem of providing space for the growing number of children within the parish CCD program, a School of Religion building, containing 10 classrooms, was erected and formally dedicated in the fall of 1964.