My parish’s religious art as it was in 1916

My parish’s religious art as it was in 1916


Those who are interested in old Catholic church art might be interested in this set of scans I made of a 1916 booklet called Decorations of Immaculate Conception Church, Salem, Massachusetts 1916. The scans include photos of the high altar as well as details and descriptions of art which no longer exists. It has long been painted over, which is a tragedy.

Immaculate Conception, my parish, is the second-oldest parish in the Archdiocese of Boston, after the cathedral-parish, having been founded in 1826. It is also the oldest parish dedicated to Mary in New England, and this weekend we will also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the current church, which makes it the oldest parish church in eastern Massachusetts. (Only St. Augustine chapel in the Catholic cemetery in South Boston is older.)

At my pastor’s request I wrote an uncredited article that appears in this week’s issue of The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper. We will be celebrating a special Mass at 11am in the church this Sunday with Cardinal O’Malley.

As for the artwork, I offer it for your consideration and for posterity.

And the following is an excerpt from Origin of the Catholic Church in Salem and Its Growth in St. Mary’s Parish and the Parish of the Immaculate Conception, written by then-Father Louis Walsh, a native son of Salem who would later become Bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1890, on the 100th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in Salem.

The first Dedication of the Church of the Immaculate Conception took place on Sunday morning, January 10, 1858, and seems to have been accompanied with all possible solemnity, as it was the “greatest Catholic ceremony” yet seen in Salem or in Essex County.

The weather was remarkably fine for the season. Long before the hour fixed for the ceremony, the church, excepting the aisles and vestibule, was crowded, and a still larger number of persons remained outside. Many were present who had witnesses the Dedication of Old St. Mary’s in 1832, and a few of these are still living in our parish. Many Protestants came, and were treated with great courtesy and attention, the best seats in the church being cheerfully offered to them. The doors and aisles were guarded and kept open by a delegation from the “Father Mathew Temperance Society” and the “Irish Reading-Room Association,” whose members marched in procession to the church.

In a short preliminary instruction, Father McElroy, S.J., of Boston, explained to the very attentive hearers, the nature, order, and design of the Dedication Ceremonies, and thus rendered them more interesting and impressive. Then, from the sacristy, came the cross-bearer, between two acolytes; next in order several altar-boys, seven or eight priests, dressed in cassock and surplice, the Right Rev. Bishop Bacon, D.D., of Portland, and finally, accompanied by deacon and subdeacon, and arrayed in cope and mitre, Right Rev. Bishop Fitzpatrick, D.D., Bishop of Boston, “whose imposing presence” attracted the especial attention of the congregation. The procession moved down the middle aisle to the outside main door; and after a short prayer by the Bishop, continued around the entire edifice, while the Pontiff sprinkled the walls, and the clergy chanted the penitential psalm, “Misere.” The circuit being made, and a second prayer recited, the procession entered the church; and when all had reached the sanctuary, the clergy and choir chanted solemnly, in Latin, the “Litany of the Saints,” during which the Bishop invoked upon the church and altar “the special blessing” of God, and thereby dedicated it to His honor, under the title of the “Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” A third prayer was then chanted, and the procession moved around the outer aisles of the interior, while the Bishop sprinkled the walls with holy water, and the chant of “psalms of joy” resounded through the sacred edifice. When the sanctuary was reached, a last and beautiful prayer was chanted aloud by the Bishop, and the solemn Amen, closed the Benediction rite.

The doors of the church were then opened to the throng of people outside, and in a few minutes, every available spot was occupied by no less than three thousand persons.

The Solemn High Mass followed …


  • Yet His Eminence for whatever his rational, is insistent on the suppression (30 June 2004) of Holy Trinity (German) Church “to more efficiently use its (the Archdiocese’s) resources to better serve the People of God”. Mind you Holy Trinity, founded in 1844, with the current House of God dating from 1877, remains largely intact…including its Sacred Art, Keeley archtectonics and its Meyer furnishings and stained glass. It remains ordered as a Domus Dei and not a “worship space”. It is obvious that one of the most important extant parts of the cultural and historic patrimony of the Archdiocese of Boston has ironically shuttered in its bicentennial year and goes with scant awareness from “the People of God” or recognition from His Eminence.

    Sadly, once gone it will be an irreparable loss to future generations of Catholics who hunger to interpret the tradition and patrimony left by our forebears.

  • What has been painted over can be uncovered and restored. If they can uncover stuff that was painted over back in the 1500’s in England, I’m pretty sure these decorations could return again.

  • I was able to get an answer to that question only yesterday from someone who has lived in the parish his whole life.

    Back in the 60s, the church was in major disrepair. The artwork was flaking and even parts of the ceiling itself were falling down. When the new pastor came in, he started a campaign to raise funds to restore the church to her former glory. Unfortunately, such work is very expensive and he was only able to raise enough to repair the structural damage and then give everything a whitewash.

    Apparently it was quite controversial at the time, but the sad reality is that such things cost money and if there isn’t enough money to pay for it, then we have to do what we must to at least make the building safe.

    Perhaps a future generation will restore the church’s art. If so, I hope my preserving this booklet lends a little help to the effort.