Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Bells

by Dick Mac

I grew-up in a relatively not-so-well-to-do section of Boston.

Mission Hill, in Roxbury, was a predominantly Irish Catholic community through the mid-1960s and changed, along with all major cities in the North, during the Great Migration.  As a child, I lived at three different addresses in Mission Hill:  26 Oregon Court, 157 Calumet Street, and 104 McGreevey Way.  My mother was from Hillside Street and my father was from Kempton Street.  We were a Mission Hill family.

Used without permission.
I went to the local parochial school, and attended Mass at the Mission Church, which is actually The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Situated halfway up the Hill, between the pumping station beneath the projects and the open fields at the top of the hill, the twin spires of Mission Church loomed large over my childhood.  Looking up the hill from Oregon Court, they were (and remain), a stunning architectural vision.

I hated going to church as a kid. My earliest memories are of the Mass being said in Latin and the only thing I found interesting was reading along as the service slowly moved forward.  I remember the responses being in green text, but someone recently insisted to me that they were in red.  Aurally, the only thing I remember is "Et cum spiritu tuo."  That was changed, sometime around 1966, to "And also with you." Today, we say "And with your spirit."

You see, I may have despised attending Mass in 1965, but I quite like it now.  I am into communion, whether it is religious or social, whether gathered for worship or hedonism.  I like being with people.  Let's listen to Father Robert or David Bowie, as long as we're doing it together!

There were a lot of priests, brothers and sisters at Mission Church.  The campuses surrounding the Basilica were impressive:  rectory, convent, grammar school, junior high school (the Guild building), theater (St. Alphonsus Hall), and garden.  Then up the hill, on Alleghany Street was the high school and another convent.  The church, physically, psychologically, and spiritually, was a huge presence.  For many, it still is.

For me, in the 1960s, this was "church." This was where you went on Sundays and where you received the sacraments, and where you went to school.  It wasn't really anything special to me.  Everyone I knew:  all my relatives, all my friends, everyone I'd ever met, went to some church or temple.  My cousins on the other side of Roxbury went to St. Patrick's, when my grandmother moved she went to St. Thomas Aquinas, my godmother went to St, Theresa's, and on and on and on.

I assumed everybody's church looked like mine.  I didn't know a basilica from a cathedral from a chapel.  I didn't know an "apse from a hole" as some non-church-going relative once said at a Sunday dinner.

I wish I could remember when and where this was:  I attended Mass with another Catholic family in some suburb in the early-1970s and it all looked rather plain, rather Protestant.  It was wood, not stone or brick, and it was only one story high.  It was downright humble, and that wasn't a notion I'd ever associated with the Catholic Church.  In my mind as a child, catholicity was directly connected to grandiosity, those notions were inseparable.  Sometimes today, they still are.  I love big, overbearing churches.  The more details, statues, stained-glass and unique architectural features, the better.

I wanted my religion big, not humble, because that's what I knew.  Even to this day, I prefer large, ostentatious churches to small humble churches.  I don't think this directly affects my spiritual condition, but it might.

In the twin spires at Mission Church, were the bells. Twelve of them, and they had names:

  • Our Lady of Perpetual Help; 4,200 lbs.
  • St. Joseph; 3,000 lbs.
  • St. Patrick; 2,100 lbs.
  • St. Alphonsus; 1,800 lbs.
  • St. Clement Hofbauer; 1,600 lbs.
  • St. John; 1,280 lbs.
  • St. Francis Xavier; 930 lbs.
  • St. Gerard Majella; 820 lbs.
  • St. Michael; 710 lbs.
  • St. Gabriel; 600 lbs.
  • St. Florian; 450 lbs.
  • St. Cecilia; 360 lbs.

Every fifteen minutes, the bells chimed the Westminster Quarters, which on the hour were followed by the Big Ben count noting the hour (it really did go on and on at Noon).  (Hear an example of the chimes at this link). 

Those spires and those bells are inspirational.  Whatever your conclusion,

I've never heard anybody, of any faith or belief, visit Mission Church or hear those bells and say "Meh!"  It is an impressive, awesome piece of Boston history.

Like all urban Catholic churches in the United States, Mission Church no longer has the income required to maintain it's impressive campus.  White, working-class Catholics like my family abandoned the neighborhood during or right after the Great Migration, to pursue the American Dream of home ownership, becoming middle-class, and living around people who looked like them.

Some urban parishes were saved in the 1980s by the migration of Latino Catholics; but the flight of second-generation European families has had in irreversible impact.  In major cities coast-to-coast, urban Catholic parishes are still merging or closing altogether.

This five-decades long contraction has been amazing to watch, especially because in the past three decades American Catholics have become so very, very Christian:  which seems to mean imposing religious beliefs via law instead of behaving towards fellow human beings in a Christ-like manner.  One no longer needs to go to church or belong to a parish to be an American Catholic, one just needs to attend a tea party, own a gun, and suffer the mantle of constitutionality.

OLPH Basilica, Mission Church.
Laura Bill, 2013
Back in Mission Hill, parish buildings that were once important landmarks for the community have been closed and/or rented to the highest bidder.  The Basilica thrives as a tourist destination, as opposed to a house of worship, and some former parishioners send donations.  Generally speaking, though, specific projects cannot be funded through conventional means.  The money just isn't there.

A few years ago, commemorative paving bricks were sold in the rectory garden to raise money.  When I had the chance to finally visit the garden and see the brick purchased in my mother's memory, I was saddened to see how few bricks were there.  This parish was huge, there were a hundred kids in each grade at the school, every year, for decades.  We got great educations for very short money.  I was shocked at how few participated in that campaign.  I mean, I am a wacky leftist and I don't go around talking about Christian values, but I see the importance of this institution in my life and the lives of so many others.  This is an important site, an important part of Boston history.  I don't recall what was done with the money from the paving bricks, but I doubt the campaign left the bank accounts swollen.

The bells.

The bells are in tough shape and need to be repaired.

During the last major renovation of the Basilica in the 1980s, an automated system was put in place, and that appears to be in good working order (but for how long?). The bolts that hold the bells in place require immediate attention to the tune of more than ten thousand dollars (pun intended).

The parish does not have this money, and they need it.

A fundraising campaign is in place.  A small donation by a lot of people is just as effective as a large donation by a few people.

If you have the means, a donation would very much help save this important piece of architectural Boston.  Even if you do not have or feel a religious, cultural or political affiliation with this project, I ask that you donate here, for me:

Help Save the Bells!

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