The History of St. Charles Borromeo Parish

History before 1843

Prior to 1843 Catholics of Woburn met their obligation to "assist at Mass" by traveling more than ten miles to Boston and later to Cambridge. At that time it was necessary to walk or share a horse-drawn vehicle.

Reverend James J. Strain of East Cambridge, while visiting his parish, of which Woburn was a part, took measures in 1843 to obtain a large house near the watering station at Walnut Hill, East Woburn as a temporary chapel. However, the fast growing population in the south and west sections of the town soon proved this chapel to be inadequate and the Town Hall in the Center was secured in 1846 and Mass was offered here once a month by Father Strain and Father Manasses Dougherty of East Cambridge.

Seven years later Catholics, under the direction of Reverend Lawrence Carroll, raised funds and bought land at the corner of Main and Summer Streets and here was built a small wooden church. Due to an influx of Irish immigrants Woburn’s congregation increased so much that by 1862 a monthly service proved insufficient. Father John McCarthy was appointed first resident pastor and for the next two years lived at the former Baptist parsonage on Pleasant Street near Bennett Street.

1864-1866 - Preparing for the Church

In January 1864 Reverend John J. Quealey, an Irish born curate in Worcester was named Pastor in Woburn. On April 21, 1866 Father Quealey reported that the average attendance at Sunday Mass was eight hundred and that of the Sunday School which met at the Church weekly was two hundred fifty. It was realized that more than a small wooden building was required to fulfill the needs of these parishioners. Able-bodied men, supplying their own tools, dug the foundation for the new brick church, which was designed by Patrick Charles Keely.

Patrick Charles Keely (1816-1896) patriarch of United States Roman Catholic Church architecture was chosen as the architect for this building. He was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, the son of a builder from whom he learned the trade. He came to the United States in 1842 because discrimination against Roman Catholics in Ireland limited his economic growth. He settled in Brooklyn, New York and in 1847 the Pastor of Saints Peter and Paul’s Church, Kings County, New York engaged him to submit plans for a new parish church. Keely proceeded with this project which won for him a degree of local fame. His reputation spread among Catholic priests in the Northeast and for the next forty-three years he dominated the field of Roman Catholic Church architecture in North America.

Saint Charles Church is eighteenth century Gothic style of architecture. The body of the Church is one hundred-eight feet in length and seventy-two feet in width. The one hundred eighty-seven foot tower is crowned with a cross seven feet high. At the front of the Church are three entrance doors. The middle one, through the base of the tower leads to the vestry. On either side of this tower doors open into entries leading to the vestry. From these entries rise flights of stairs which meet at the top of the entrance to the body of the Church. Entrance to the Church is had by one wide door.

In the Church are one hundred-five pews, intersected by three aisles and capable of seating about twelve hundred persons. The pews were built of chestnut and trimmed with black walnut. The sanctuary was separated from the body of the Church by an elegant rail supported by balusters of black walnut, trimmed with chestnut in a very ornamental manner. On either side of the church are small alcoves facing the nave.

On the wall of the sanctuary were three very beautiful frescoed panels; the central one depicts the Crucifixion, the one to the left the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin and the one to the right the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven. At the right and left of the sanctuary are vestries that may be entered from a door on Summer Street. A passage runs across the building into which the sanctuary and vestries open and from which a door gives egress by the rear of the Church. The Church is lighted by seven Gothic windows, of elegantly stained glass, on the north side and six on the south side. In the middle of this side a door is placed over which a small window admits the light. The roof is supported by six arches resting on twelve pillars surmounted with Gothic capitals. Over the apex of the arches are frescoed panels bearing the portraits of the twelve Apostles. The front of the gallery is ornamented with monograms and emblems. The gallery is reached from the landing at the head of the front stairs by a circular flight of steps in the tower. It contained an organ and seats for singers. The vestry is three steps below the main entrance and is supplied with seats for about one thousand persons. The appearance of the Church was described as rich and elegant and the structure one of the ornaments of the town.

1867-1905 - Building the Church

The cornerstone of this Church was laid in December 1867 and on September 12, 1869 this outstanding Church was dedicated under the title of Saint Charles Borromeo.

Fifteen years later 1884, twelve Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came to Woburn and were housed in an attractive wooden convent at 8 Summer Street, the site of the present convent. A building south of the present Rectory, known as Saint John’s Hall and used by the Saint Charles Total Abstinence society, had been renovated and fitted with classrooms. The first Parochial School in Woburn was known as Saint John’s School.

On July 5, 1897 Father Quealey, after over three decades of continuous and rewarding work was called to his eternal reward.

Reverend John J. Keegan became the Pastor of Saint Charles Borromeo Church in August 1897. Like his predecessor he strove to better the parish.

After the erection of a substantial Parochial Residence at the corner of Main and Summer Streets he turned his attention to the building of a school.

Father Keegan, a strong advocate of the parochial school system of education worked long and zealously to erect a building which would have the very best for the children under his care.

1906-1916 - The Death of Fr. Keegan

On March 14, 1917 the citizens of Woburn were saddened by the death of Reverend James J. Keegan. In appreciation of his services the parishioners gave a manually-operated Angelus Bell for the Church steeple. The Guardian Angel Statue, originally positioned in front of the school but in recent years on an elevation south of the Rectory, was also a gift to the Pastor.

1917-1931 - Fr. John P. Gorham's Pastorate

In April 1917 Reverend John P. Gorham came to Saint Charles as its Pastor. He, like his predecessor, worked diligently and forcefully to better the parish and improve the educational system. As a result of his efforts and the cooperation of the parishioners, he was able to secure the architectural firm of Sheehan & Colleary for the erection of a Catholic Centre on Myrtle Street. On October 2, 1921 thousands attended exercises for the laying of the Cornerstone. Father Gorham pointed out that the first call for funds for the new building brought $30,000.00 in one of the hardest months in the history of the city and also said that other funds were forthcoming that assured the successful completion of this immense structure. A copper box containing the names of contributors to the school fund, copies of the Woburn Daily Times, coins, medals and other current articles were placed within the stone. Father Gorham, assisted by his curates, Reverend Walter A. Fagan as Master of Ceremonies and Reverend Patrick I. Quill and Reverend William L. Keville as Deacons blessed the stone and the building, then went to the main entrance of the building where he delivered an address in which he thanked the people for their generosity which encouraged this project and specified that there would be no undertaking that would benefit the public at large more than this building. He also said not only is the school a benefit to the city as any school is a benefit but housed within this edifice are eight classrooms; a science laboratory, so equipped that it surpasses that of any neighboring school, a well furnished modern business room, a banquet hall, committee rooms, kitchen and pantry, and an Auditorium - a place where the Pastor pointed out, everyone would be welcome. This Auditorium filled the void in the closing of Lyceum Hall, due to a disastrous fire March 17, 1906.

In the Spring of 1927, under the direction of Father Gorham, the lower part of the Church was completely renovated. Due to a tornado, the size of the Church steeple was reduced.

On June 5, 1931 Father Gorham died after fourteen years at Saint Charles. He lived to see many pupils reap the benefits of a first class education; Woburn audiences enjoyed excellent dramatic and musical performances and parish organizations realize the facilities this Centre provided them.

1931-1943 - Building the Convent (Parish Center)

In September 1931 Reverend Charles P. Heaney, a classmate of Father Gorham at the Seminary succeeded him as Pastor at Saint Charles.

His main concern was to provide a more suitable Convent for the Sisters who had doubled in number from the original twelve who came in 1884 and were living in the same wooden house. Although very homey and well maintained it was inadequate.

The parishioners, always ready to provide for the welfare of these devoted nuns were happy to assist Father Heaney in this endeavor.

In May 1940 at the same address, a new convent, designed by Architect James Charles Flaherty was undertaken and in December was ready for occupancy. There were accommodations in this huge brick building for thirty Sisters and, as in the former home a chapel for celebration of Mass and private devotion.

Father Heaney’s dream was realized before his death in 1943. This Pastor was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woburn.

1943-1982 - Renovations and Upkeep

Reverend Joseph A. Curtin assumed the Pastorate on June 23, 1943 and in December 1955 he was accorded the honor of being the first Monsignor of this Parish. At this time Saint Charles Borromeo parish could boast of a beautiful Church and Rectory, two large brick schools and a new convent, thus it would seem there is no need for new construction. However, upkeep of this property is tremendous and one of Monsignor Curtin’s main accomplishments was the refurbishing of the Catholic Center Auditorium making it most attractive. On Christmas Day 1951 a fire in the Upper Church caused much concern and resulted in obtaining new altars and extensive renovations to the Church.

Right Reverend Monsignor Curtin retired to the Regina Cleri Residence for Priests in Boston where he passed away February 5, 1971.

This spiritual leader was succeeded by Reverend Christopher C. O’Neill and who was also designated a Monsignor while here.

Much in the line of maintenance and renovating for the upkeep of the buildings was necessary. Under his leadership many of the mandates of Vatican II were carried out. The Church and Rectory were refurbished to conform to the “new.”

The simple wooden “table altar” replaced the beautiful “high” altar and the polished marble altars; the chancel rails were abolished; Mass was said in English with the celebrant facing the congregation and the laity was given a more active part in the liturgy. The Stations of the Cross were matched to the new decor losing their original artistic coloring. The Baptismal Font was removed from the Chapel in the Rectory and installed in the Church where Baptisms would henceforth be performed. Monsignor O’Neill, eager to have everyone attend to their spiritual duties, had a full schedule of Masses for the weekend - on Saturday P.M. and Sunday A.M. and P.M.

Although Monsignor was very interested in the parochial system of education of the children, due to a shortage of Religious Sisters, he was forced to close the High School in 1974. However there are at present (1987) classes from K-8 staffed by three Sisters of Notre Dame and lay teachers.

In 1977, the Pastor, speaking to the principals of Saint Charles School, expressed an interest in opening a preschool class.

The Supervisor of Education for the Sisters of Notre Dame suggested that this preschool class follow the Montessori philosophy. The Convent was prepared to house this class and details were worked out. The first class was formulated in September 1978 with approximately thirty pupils age three years. The development of the Montessori program was designed to be accomplished over a three year period. In about seven years this “school” had outgrown its quarters and it was given a new home at Saint Margaret’s school in Burlington but is still managed by Saint Charles Borromeo Parish.

Monsignor O’Neill’s brother, Monsignor Jeremiah O’Neill, after retiring from his Pastorate in Rockland, assisted at Saint Charles for several years.

After twenty-two fruitful years as Pastor, Right Reverend Christopher C. O’Neill retired to his family home in Belmont.

1983-Present - Looking Forward to Another 150 Years!

Reverend Leonard T. McGrath
Reverend Leonard T. McGrath came to Saint Charles as its Pastor, August 22, 1983. Under his leadership the mandates of Vatican II are being supported. Accommodations were completed for the Sacrament of Reparation and there is increasing participation of the laity in the Liturgy as Lectors, Cantors, Eucharistic Ministers and teachers.
Fr. Paul T. Walsh
On November 4, 1989, Fr. Paul T. Walsh was installed as the Ninth Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church. Fr. Walsh invited all Woburn-born priests from St. Charles to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for Vocations on November 3, 1990. He oversaw a successful capital campaign that was necessary for needed facility renovation, including new windows, new roofs, and restored steeple to our Church. All of what he wished to accomplish remained unforseen by way of his sudden and untimely death, on July 26, 1991.
Fr. Paul S. Sughrue
Fr. Paul S. Sughrue succeeded Fr. Paul T. Walsh in late November, 1991. Fr. Sughrue continued the Development Campaign and the overseeing of ongoing restorations of the complex, such as new heating systems. Under the advisement of the Financial council, Phase II of the Development Campaign was successfully implemented. The Convent became the home of a Parish Center housing the Religious Education Office, a flourishing Thrift Ship, and the home of a vital Food Pantry of St. Vincent de Paul. The Center also houses the Montessori School of Middlesex, Inc. and the WIC program, which supports mothers to be, new mothers and their young children with nutritional help.
Fr. Timothy J. Shea
Fr. Timothy J. Shea succeeded Fr. Paul Sughrue in June, 1997. The Development Campaign was completed, parish indebtedness was reduced and a schedule was set to eliminate all current indebtedness by 2004.
The parish Religious Education Program was entrusted to the direction of Deacon Philip Hardcastle, thus engaging the parish Permanent Deacon's services on a full-time basis.

The Divisions of St. Charles

Winchester, formerly “South Woburn,” became a town only in 1850 and by 1873 Father John Quealey began the construction of Saint Mary’s Church on Washington Street, Winchester which was dedicated May 4, 1879. The industrial section of East Woburn was attached to this new parish. Meanwhile on September 19, 1875 Reverend Cornelius O’Connor was assigned as first Pastor of Saint Mary’s. He was instrumental in the building of the Church of Saint Joseph which was blessed May 4, 1879 and here a separate parish was created on October 24, 1906 under Reverend Patrick F. Higgins.

In 1908 Saint Anthony’s parish, North Woburn was started under the guidance of Father James J. Keegan as a mission of Saint Charles. In 1909 this mission was transferred to the newly formed parish Saint Thomas of Villanova, Wilmington, which for many years had been attended by the Augustinian Fathers from Andover. In July 1919 Father Richard Boland was the new resident pastor of Saint Thomas and Saint Anthony’s was transferred to this new parish. In 1927-28 Father Boland built a fairly large brick and limestone Church, Italian Romanesque style of Architecture, at a cost of $70,000.00 on Main Street in North Woburn.

The Immaculate Conception Parish comprised of the northern section of Winchester and the southern section of Woburn was founded in September 1931 with Reverend James F. Fitzsimons as first pastor. Because there was no other hall in the district the one at the Noonan School was acquired through the generosity of the Winchester School Committee and two Masses were celebrated here by the Pastor. It was soon evident that two Masses were not sufficient to accommodate the parishioners, thus Reverend Charles J. Foley was assigned as Assistant. On January 23, 1932 a new Chapel on Sheriden Circle, Winchester was ready and a fourth Mass was added. Although very simple in design and ornament this Chapel had all the essentials for devotion. By 1935 more land on Sheridan Circle was procured and a permanent Church and Rectory erected.

On June 6, 1954 the Most Reverend Archbishop decreed the erection of a new parish in West Woburn to be known as Saint Barbara’s Parish. Reverend Earl T. Lyons was appointed Pastor and until a rectory was available for him in this district, he would reside at Saint Charles Parochial Residence. Church services were held in the Parker School and then in American Legion Hall. Monsignor Curtin was happy to welcome Father Lyons and in August 1955 donated $20,000.00 to Saint Barbara’s Parish which included parts of Woburn, Burlington, Lexington and Winchester. Located at 138 Cambridge Road, Woburn, is a beautiful Saint Barbara’s Church and Rectory.

Acknowledgment is made for access to the resource materials of Woburn Public Library, the Archives of the Archdiocese of Boston, the State Archives and the Library of Saint John’s Seminary.

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