North End’s St. Stephen Church celebrates sesquicentennial

By Patrick E. O’Connor

St. Stephen Church, circa 1960St. Stephen Church, circa 1960
The 150th anniversary of the establishment of St. Stephen Church on Hanover Street in the North End was remembered with a Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, September 23 with Auxiliary Bishop Robert F. Hennessey presiding.

St. Stephen Church was originally the New North Congregational Church. Boston born Charles Bulfinch, the nation’s premier architect of the time, received the commission to design a church to replace a previous church at Hanover and Clark Streets in 1802. The church was completed in 1804 and by 1814, renamed the Second Unitarian Church.

During the Civil War era, the Unitarian congregation declined as the immigrant population of the North End swelled. A previously established St. John the Baptist Church on Moon Street had outgrown its use. Father John J. Williams, administrator at the time and later Archbishop of Boston, purchased the church on September 26, 1862 for $35,000. He dedicated the church to St. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr on December 2, 1862.

In the years since 1862, the church has survived a major fire in the spring of 1897 and again in September, 1929 and undergone numerous renovations. By the 1960’s, the neglect of the structure came to the attention of Cardinal Cushing. He authorized the church to close in 1964 for restoration and began raising funds to pay for the cost.

On Thursday, November 11, 1965, Cardinal Cushing rededicated the church. A new era began in April, 1968. The St. James Missionary Society established their headquarters at the church and rectory and assumed responsibility for the parish. In 2004, all of the North End was reorganized into St. Leonard Parish. St. Stephen’s lost its status as a parish but remained open as a chapel.