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“Who designed this church? Walt Disney?”

Witnesses say Cardinal Cushing asked that question aloud as he walked into the brand new St. Malachy’s on Bedford Street to officially dedicate the church in 1963. He drew laughs from the crowd gathered outside. As he left the building, he noticed little Patrick O’Dougherty of Liberty Ave. staring at his bright red shoes. The cardinal asked him, “Like the shoes, kid?”

St. Malachy's dedication and cornerstone
Cardinal Cushing laying ceremonial mortar at St. Malachy’s in 1963. Apparently he found the building a bit over-the-top. Makes you wonder what he thought of his own wardrobe and entourage. Photo credit: Liz Serpa

Obviously the cardinal didn’t take his job seriously at every moment, but let’s take his architectural question seriously. Who designed Burlington’s bedazzling church? It wasn’t Walt Disney. It was architect Daniel F. Tully.

Where did the design come from? “I believe it originated between my ears,” quips Tully, now 88. “I never saw a building like it. I entered the idea in an international design competition in the early 60s, and it was very successful, so I thought I’d use it once again for an actual building.”

But didn’t this mean taking a huge risk with an unproven structure? “What you have as a backup is mathematics,” Tully says. “Proper analysis will give you the performance of such a structure. I did fall back on some support from other engineers in that respect.”

Initial reaction could best be described as confusion. When the building was under construction, and the radical frame was taking shape, a hurricane passed through the area. It left the building unscathed, but Tully visited the site to inspect it anyway. A motorist pulled off Bedford Street and rolled down her window, aghast. “Oh my God!” she yelled at Tully. “Is that what the hurricane did?”

St. Malachy's under construction Oct. 1963, Burlington MA
St. Malachy’s under construction in October, 1963. Warped by design, not by hurricane.

 

St. Malachy’s was not even Tully’s boldest design. Look at this one in Reading, MA:

St. Athanasius Parish, Reading MA
St. Athanasius Parish

Tully championed the hyperbolic paraboloid roof, the shape of a Pringles potato chip. The next time you bite into one, notice the combination of thinness and rigidity — a nice pair of traits for a building. Pringles are stacked on top of each other in cans without breaking. You can even build complex structures with them.

When St. Athanasius was completed in Reading in 1962, it was the biggest hyperbolic paraboloid in the Western Hemisphere.

St. Athanasius Parish Reading, MA

Tully designed over 40 churches around New England, including this one in Norwood. That little arched structure on the left echoes St. Malachy’s a bit:

St. Timothy, Norwood, MA
St. Timothy, Norwood, MA

And he designed plenty of non-churches, such as the athletic center at Wesleyan University in Connecticut . . .

Freeman Athletic Center, Wesleyan University
Freeman Athletic Center, Wesleyan University

. . . and the Weis Center at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania:

Weis Center at Bucknell University
Weis Center at Bucknell University

He was raised in a devout Catholic family but married a Jewish woman. In his early 70s, he completed the Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Virginia, even incorporating a Star of David along the edge of the ceiling rotunda.

Congregation Sha'are Shalom
Congregation Sha’are Shalom, Virginia

Mid-career, while he was teaching at Trinity College, he helped save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapse. Yes, he found a fast way to stabilize it, to buy time for a permanent solution. Walt Disney would have been way over his head with this stuff.


More from Burlington:

 

Linda and Donna Zani
Linda and Donna Zani at St. Malachy’s, 1964. Photo credit: Jerry Zani

 

1969 St. Malachy's Morgairs. Seated -- Gerry Miller, Marie Laughrea, Pat Boiko, Rev. Daniel Foley, Pat Malone, Carol Kane, Eida Luti. Standing -- Ruth Everton, Helen Nocello, Pat Kent, Midge Miller, Pauline Ganshirt, Carol Fraser, Barbara Sebastian, Judy Murphy, Lucille Lorenzani.
1969 St. Malachy’s Morgairs. Seated — Gerry Miller, Marie Laughrea, Pat Boiko, Rev. Daniel Foley, Pat Malone, Carol Kane, Eida Luti. Standing — Ruth Everton, Helen Nocello, Pat Kent, Midge Miller, Pauline Ganshirt, Carol Fraser, Barbara Sebastian, Judy Murphy, Lucille Lorenzani. Photo credit: Karen DiSanto

13 thoughts on ““Who designed this church? Walt Disney?” Leave a comment

  1. We always called it the Covered Wagon church; I always liked it, I like modern and contemporary …

  2. St. Malachy’s was like my second home. I was an acolyte for the dedication. My dad was an usher for Sunday Masses and my Mom was a former Morgair’s President. When I graduated from college in 1966, I became a weekly lector at Mass and I became the junior advisor to CYO. The priests were wonderful people, especially Monsignor Flaherty. I loved the architecture of the church. St. Malachy’s is one of my favorite memories of living in Burlington. Thanks for the wonderful memories your story and pictures brought.

  3. Yup, the covered wagon was what we called it too. I was later, an Altar Boy there, and by that time, the design was completely familiar. Great Story!

  4. My Mom made sure we were at mass every Sunday. I remember we would walk to Wildwood School after Mass for CCD classes. McCarthy’s pig farm was right across the street for many years and boy I sure remember what that smelled like. Yikes.

  5. Another wonderful article! St Malachy’s…..loved the design – great job Mr. Tully! Very creative and ahead of its time. (the design of St Athanasius was cool as well). Being raised Catholic, my Mom ‘shooed’ us to confession each and every Saturday (what sins?). Each Sunday there we were at Mass every week – although St Margaret’s was our parish.

    Sometimes I’d walk to St Malachy’s for the Folk Mass – other times my sister would drive. I can remember the ‘wonky’ parking lot. Cars just pulled in & lined up behind each other; not parked in typical lined spaces – funky parking for a funky church. Although that is all I remember…because it was not our ‘assigned’ church I never knew the priests. The Folk Mass was enjoyable though. I also used to like to go to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass (St Margaret’s). My friend was an altar boy – my bros and I used to try to distract/torment him. Perhaps I should have confessed that?!

    Confirmation Day, during my era was made at age 12(ish). Oh, I recall the pomp and circumstance as Cardinal Cushing (I believe it was him; who else wore such a hat & those shoes!) came to St Margret’s and we had to kiss his ring. My sister told me we did not ‘have to’ it was simply a sign of respect. Ok…so what if I said ‘no thank you’? I do not remember this as an option. But, I was a kid….who followed the rules….so kiss his ring I did. Does anyone remember this?

  6. Thanks for a most informative article. I belong to St. Malachy’s church but I never knew that such a famous and accomplished architect designed St. Malachy’s Church.
    The interior ceiling was originally asbestos, and it was a huge undertaking to have the interior ceiling replaced after removing the asbestos. It was first discovered when threads of asbestos hairs fell from that ceiling onto a few benches which was quite alarming to all. No more asbestos and all is good!

  7. Great story! I was an altar boy and then an usher as I got older with my Dad. My family was a staple at the 12:15 mass. Great memories there!

  8. I thought there was a chance that it was Eero Saarinen, he designed using catenary curves like that.

  9. Great article about St. Malachy’s. That was our parish growing up. My older brothers were altar boys and my parents made sure we went to church every Sunday along with Sunday School classes. I was sitting in St. Malachy’s at mass on Sunday, January 28, 1973 with one of my younger brothers and the priest asked everyone to pray for my mother’s soul, at that age I didn’t realize that meant she had died. We walked home from church oblivious to the news awaiting us from our father that our mother had died that morning. I ended up getting married in St. Margaret’s church, but asked Father Flaherty from St. Malachy’s to come do the wedding even though he had retired.

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