Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part history of St. Lawrence Church in New Bedford. The introduction was written by the editor. Part II will appear in the November 26 Anchor.

By Msgr. Barry W. Wall, Diocesan Archivist, Special to The Anchor

NEW BEDFORD — On November 21 folks will gather at St. Lawrence Martyr Church in the Whaling City to participate in the celebration of a Mass commemorating the church’s 200th anniversary. Outside the “New World,” one would be hard-pressed to find many entities or edifices that celebrate two centuries of existence. That’s one of the reasons why this is such an incredible event.

St. Lawrence Church, New Bedford

Following the Mass, a reception will follow at The Century House, 107 South Main Street in Acushnet at 1:30 p.m. There are only 175 tickets available for sale due to the room size at The Century House. Tickets will be sold at all Masses and at the parish offices at St. Lawrence Martyr, 508-992-4251. Office Hours: M-F 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, calls only. Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 508-992-3184. Office Hours: Monday, Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

St. Lawrence Church, is part of the Whaling City Catholic Community, of which Father Michael S. Racine is pastor. Father Racine told The Anchor that the anniversary is a marvelous achievement, proof of the hard work and dedication of countless immigrant and settled New Bedford residents two centuries ago, until today.

Even with all the church and its faithful have achieved over the years, Father Racine noted that “St. Lawrence Parish has produced many vocations over the years, the last being Father James Ferus, S.J., in 2020 and myself in 1995.”

Beginnings: The First Church

The records of the Bristol County Registry of Deeds show that 200 years ago on March 19, 1821, Edward Wing for the sum of $80 conveyed a 40-rod parcel of land in New Bedford to John Cheverus of Boston. John Lefebvre de Cheverus was the first Bishop of Boston; his diocese included the six New England states. The land was located on Allen Street at the head of Dartmouth Street which would become the northeast corner of Allen and Orchard Streets. This was the first piece of land owned by the Catholic Church in what is now the Diocese of Fall River.

 The real estate transaction was very likely negotiated by Father Philip Lariscy, an Irish Augustinian Friar who was accepted into the diocese from Nova Scotia by the bishop in the spring of 1818. Father Lariscy apparently visited New Bedford in March of 1821. The baptismal register of the Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston contains the records of the Baptisms of 10 children of New Bedford families of various ages celebrated between March 12 and March 20. Six of the 10 were the children of Peter and Eleanor O’Connor whose names appear in the 1810 Federal Census. A small frame church was soon built at the Allen Street site by a local carpenter, Dudley Davenport, at a cost of $800. The weekly newspaper, The Mercury, announced the little church would be dedicated to the worship of God on Sunday July 29, 1821 but a week later the same paper reported the dedication would not take place as scheduled.

 The postponement of the event was caused by the sudden departure of Father Lariscy from the Boston Diocese. The situation is not easy to summarize. In April Bishop Cheverus had accepted a priest from the Diocese of New York, Father William Taylor. Although he was Irish, he was an urbane convert from the Anglican Church; in temperament and background he was the complete opposite to Father Lariscy, the boisterous Irish-speaking Friar. Furthermore, in a dispute in New York Father Taylor took the side of the laymen against the bishop and a friend of Father Lariscy. The inevitable blow up took place when Bishop Cheverus returned from a well -deserved vacation. Bishop Cheverus felt compelled to let Father Lariscy go but in recognition of his hard work he gave him a hundred dollars and allowed a collection to be taken up on his behalf. Father Lariscy went to New York and was engaged in ministering to communities along the Hudson River for a time, and moved on the join the Augustinian community at St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia. There he died on April 6, 1824 and is buried there.

 From The Mercury of November 2, 1821, we learn that Bishop Cheverus visited New Bedford on Sunday October 28; there is no mention of the ceremony of dedication but the little church was in a sense dedicated by the good bishop’s presence. The paper also reported that it was not possible for all who came to find a place inside the church. The church which came to be called St Mary’s was little used because of the scarcity of priests. We know that Father William Taylor visited in April 1823 and accepted an invitation to preach in the Congregational church.

 In 1825 Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, S.J, a native of Maryland succeeded Bishop Cheverus who returned to France where he died in 1836 while serving as Cardinal Archbishop of Bordeaux.

Early in 1828 Bishop Fenwick welcomed the assistance of Father Robert D. Woodley whom he had known at Georgetown College. Father Woodley who resided in Providence, R.I., was appointed to care for the Catholics south of Boston, including those in New Bedford. Aided by contributions from Protestants in the community, as well as his parishioners,  Father Woodley was able to finish the interior of the church by plastering and painting so that on New Year’s Day 1830 something of a second opening took place. Father Woodley served through 1830 and returned to the south where entered the Society of Jesus. Early in October Father Peter Connolly, recently ordained, was assigned to St. Peter’s in Sandwich, to care also for the Catholics of New Bedford and Wareham. His successors in Sandwich continued his ministry in New Bedford, Father Patrick Canavan (1832-1834), Father Francis Kiernan (1834-1835), Father John Brady (1835-1837), Father Kiernan again in 1837, and then the care of the New Bedford mission passed to priests from Newport, Father Constantine Lee (1837-1839) and Father James O’Reilly (1839-1844)

Bishop Fenwick first visited New Bedford in November 1832; he came again to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation on Aug. 15, 1841. Assisted by Father O’Reilly he wrote that he confirmed 10 people “great and small.” He also wrote in his journal that the church was the same “pitiful little building” of Father Lariscy’s time, with one aisle, 24 pews and adjoining sacristy; but he didn’t fail to note it was “brushed up, newly painted, white – washed and in good repair.”  

The church has been described as having three steps leading to the front door which was located between two arched windows, and on each side of the church there were three similar windows with heavy shutters. The church was probably in the beginning unpainted but older parishioners interviewed for a newspaper article in The Evening Standard many years later remembered it painted a shade of drab while the doors and shutters were green. One parishioner recalled a boyhood memory of the men conversing together in front of the church before Mass while the women visited the graves of loved ones buried in the churchyard. “A beautiful place it was on a pleasant Sunday.  One could look from the rising ground where the church stood, off over a vast expanse of green fields and see in the distance the blue waters of the bay.”

New Bedford welcomed the railroad in 1840 which made it possible to travel from Boston in three hours compared with six or more hours by stage coach, but progress in the Catholic Community would not come for another decade.   The first resident pastor, appointed in 1844 was Father Patrick Byrne, a veteran parish priest, one of four men ordained by Bishop Cheverus. Unfortunately, Father Byrne lived only six months. His successor was Father James Maguire who complained to the bishop about a lawless element in the diminishing congregation, saying he was almost assaulted by a man loitering around the church looking for a fight. 

Growth: The Second St. Mary’s Church, St. Mary’s Cemetery

Father Thomas R. McNulty, a native of County Armagh, Ireland replaced Father Maguire in March of 1846. Three years later he was able to purchase the former Universalist Church at Fifth (Pleasant) and School streets in the center of the city. The old church was divided in two and sold. One portion of the venerable building survives as part of a dwelling on Forest Street. The site continued to serve as a cemetery until 1856.

Part II of the St. Lawrence Church story will appear in the next Anchor edition.