History of St. Paul Church

After beginning the triduum services in the old building, the parish moved its liturgies to this new church for Easter Sunday, April 1, 1923. Five early Masses that morning were followed by the solemn High Mass at 11 a.m. featuring Mozart's 12th Mass but also including works by Schubert, Tozer, Falkenstein, and Haydn, with orchestral accompaniment. For a year, while the lower church was being finished, three Sunday Masses were held upstairs with the earlier and weekday liturgies still at the old church. At the dedication of the church of a million bricks on October 13, 1924, Cardinal O'Connell devoted half his sermon to praising the priests and people of the parish and half to the juxtaposition of this Catholic church with "a great temple of learning." While giving credit to "the great influential institution" nearby (which he never called by name), O'Connell reminded his audience that centuries ago Oxford and Cambridge also "forgot their duty to their Mother" and have hence missed the way in their campaign for truth. In contrast, "This sacred edifice, this temple of God, possesses the whole truth, the real truth, the fundamental truth."


It is difficult to evaluate O'Connell's involvement with the building of the church. The oral tradition of the parish claims that the Cardinal was opposed to the building of the church, gave not one cent for it, and actively persuaded wealthy Catholic professionals and business people not to support it. Such statements are the natural pride of parishioners in their own work. On the other hand, there is no evidence that O'Connell was anything but helpful. Correspondence shows that he regularly approved the mortgages Fr. Ryan took out on the old church building and appointed Fr. Ryan to important diocesan positions. O'Connell's insistence that the dedication service be a Low Mass, that Fr. Ryan's sermon be short, and that he would not be able to stay for lunch (since he would be tired) were merely par for the course during the busy archbishop's reign. Whatever it actually thought, the excited parish treated the impatient prince of the church to an escort parade, starting on Putnam Avenue. Great credit clearly goes to these parishioners, many of whom had limited resources, and to Fr. Ryan, who organized weekly dime collections as well as field days when the contributions slowed. Although St. Paul's was no longer a very poor parish (the pew rent then totaled $23,000 annually) the ambitious and expensive church tested its limits.

The pastor had not otherwise been idle; he was also developing the property on Massachusetts Avenue. In 1908 one newly acquired house there was rented out to the seven hundred members of the Holy Name Society to give them a headquarters for meetings (and to carry the lot's heavy mortgage). To house the sisters, whose residence on Arrow street was removed for the church, 1033 Massachusetts Avenue (next to the school annex and the Holy Name Society) was altered for a convent of twenty-five bedrooms, chapel, and reception rooms.

With the church now towering over the river area (there were as yet no Harvard houses), Fr. Ryan's work was almost done. There remained only the matching rectory to be built. In June 1918 Fr. Ryan, alerted by the owner, had obtained permission to purchase at foreclosure a parcel with two houses on Mt. Auburn Street immediately opposite the rear of the new St. Paul's Church and adjacent to the Newman House, commenting to the Cardinal, "this property would make an ideal location for a rectory in keeping with the new Church." Later that summer, however, he came down with pneumonia and was forced to take his first vacation in fifteen years. In the summer of 1924, with the new church open, Fr. Ryan despite failing health determined to finish the building program. He bought another house along De Wolfe Street and sold the old church and rectory to Harvard for $85,000 (through a Catholic alumnus as broker). After payment of a $42,000 mortgage, he had over $40,000 on hand towards the cost of his $70,000 rectory--he had built the new church without resulting debt! Graham had already started on the plans for the new rectory, when on April 7, 1925, a stroke of apoplexy ended John J. Ryan's long ministry on Mount Auburn Street.

When Fr. Ryan arrived at St. Paul's as an assistant in 1889, the parish was just undertaking its first major project, building a school. By the time he died as pastor thirty-five years later, St. Paul's was a powerful sign of the Catholic Church in Harvard Square--not only an extraordinary edifice, but also a thriving parish with active societies and over eight hundred school children. In the last five years of his life, he served on the Diocesan Building Commission and as Synodal Examiner and Diocesan Consultor. Before 1914 he had been state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, and at the time of his death he was still council chaplain for Cambridge. His relations with Harvard were vastly superior to his predecessor's. He served as chaplain for the students for several years, and in regard to university expansion, he and the parish committee chaired by the dry-goods merchant J. H. Corcoran felt that Harvard dealt squarely with their concerns. Most conspicuously, he conceived and executed the Church of St. Paul in a way that now seems inevitable. Thinking back to Harvard's petition for a boulevard to absorb much of the open Church property along De Wolfe Street, Fr. Ryan commented in his final days, "The Lord has worked the opposite."