Uniquely Medfield: The Church of St. Edward

A weekly column by Medfield Town Historian Richard DeSorgher.

The first Catholic Mass in Medfield was said in 1854 at the home of James Griffin on East Main Street, more commonly known as the Peak House.

Back in 1854 there were only about twenty Catholics living in Medfield. That first Mass in the Peak House was conducted by Father O’Beirne of Tommy’s Rock Parish (Roxbury), who was invited to Medfield by Griffin. From that point on, Catholic Sunday services were held in Harthshorn Hall in the Clark Tavern (353-355 East Main Street), in town hall, the hall in Frost Block above what is now Larkin’s Liquor Store, and in private homes at both ends of town, especially for an extended period at the John Sullivan home at 41 Pleasant Street. 

In the 1870s, Medfield Catholics were attached to the Dedham Parish, with Masses still being said in local Medfield homes. By 1890 the number of Medfield Catholics had risen to over 150 and Medfield was joined to the Sacred Heart Parish in South Natick. 

Medfield’s Catholic history then became so intertwined with that of Natick that when St. Edward Church was built it imitated, almost to the exact detail, the Church of the Sacred Heart. A movement began that resulted in the building of St. Edward Church on Main Street.  It was the pastor of Sacred Heart in South Natick, Rev. John A. Donnelly, that helped to make it possible for St. Edward Church to be constructed.

Ground was broken for the Church on August 6, 1892 and the cornerstone was ceremoniously laid on October 23, 1892. A box inside the cornerstone contained coins, copies of the local papers, and the names of the president of the United States, the governor of Massachusetts, the pope in Rome,  Pastor Rev. John A. Donnelly of the church, the architect and builder, as well as the Medfield Board of Selectmen.

The church stood on Main Street opposite Town Hall, where the new addition to the library and the gazebo are today. On October 15, 1893 St. Edward Roman Catholic Church was dedicated. The dimensions of the gothic style wooden building were 46 feet by 98 feet, with a tower rising to the height of 40 feet. The lot and structure cost $10,000. The church had a seating capacity of 350, including a balcony above the vestibule. The altar was separated from the body of the church by a massive oak railing. Above the altar were three stained glass windows with St. Edward the Confessor in the center. The nave contained 30 stained glass windows arranged in groups of three which were gifts of members of the parish. The local press called it the “handsomest church in town.”

The large number of Catholics immigrants from Southern Europe and Ireland that would enter Boston during the early 1900s and into the1920s, would keep a small increase in Catholics coming to Medfield. Some Irish Catholic girls, called “Green Girls” had come earlier, during Ireland’s potato famine emigration, to work as maids in Medfield homes.

In the 1870s-1880s, signs on the door of Medfield’s hat factory read “No Irish Need Apply.” According to various oral historians, one did not sell property in Medfield to Catholics during this time. Catholics were also not buried in Vine Lake Cemetery, the town’s only cemetery, until 1896 when Town Meeting action permitted such Catholic burials. That year, James Griffin became the first Catholic to be buried there.  Anti-Catholic feelings were prominent throughout Massachusetts. An anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan rally over the river in Millis in 1925 and a cross burning episode on Miller Street, where an Italian Catholic family buying there was warned, by a burning cross, to “get out,” are some examples which show the same type of blind prejudice encountered in Boston and throughout the United States was also encountered here in Medfield.

The first Confirmation liturgy in the new church was held on October 14, 1894, officiated by the Most Rev. J.J. Williams, Archbishop of Boston. In that year the first Sunday school was begun. In 1899, St Edward Parish established its first female choir. In December of 1900, the 1,300 pound bell was hung in the tower of the Church. The bell was dedicated on December 22, 1900 and rang for the first time on Christmas morning. The inscription on the bell reads: "Dedicated to St. Catherine, presented to St. Edward's Church, Medfield, Rev. John A. Donnelly Pastor, A.D. 1900, by a friend. Gloria in Excelsis Deo." This is the same bell that exists in the church on Spring Street today.

St. Edward Church was initially considered a mission church. On February 10, 1901 Rev. Daniel H. Riley, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Walpole, was appointed as the first pastor of St. Edward Church. The first resident pastor of St. Edward Church was Rev. Hugh Malachi Smith. He was pastor from 1903 - 1923 and was extremely popular and active in town.

Within ten years of the arrival of Rev. Smith, it was necessary to increase from one to two services each Sunday. During the time that Rev. Smith was pastor, sacred concerts to benefit the parish were given under the direction of Prof. Charles Martin Loeffler, the distinguished composer and concert-master violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During World War I, concerts were also given to benefit the Red Cross. A who’s-who of Boston’s social world, led by Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner, came out to St. Edward for the Loeffler concerts.

In the early 1900s, St Edward Parish held annual fairs. Booths were set up behind the church.. Lights were strung up at night and a dance floor put down.  In the years before St. Margaret Mary Church was built in Westwood, many Catholics from Westwood attended St. Edward, arriving and leaving church Sunday morning on the electric trolley cars that ran along what is not Route 109.  For many years, the Marcionette family who comprised the entire choir, did the church music, organ and singing. 

In 1923, Rev. John McCool became pastor. It was Fr. McCool that had the interior of the church decorated and the confessionals built. He also raffled off the old wooden rectory (currently at 42 Green St.) and had a beautiful new brick rectory built. During the 1920s-1960s, religious education was under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph from St. Catherine Parish in Norwood and in 1924 a Medfield branch of the Holy Name Society was formed. Rev. William J. O’Connell was pastor from 1930-1934 and under his guidance the Catholic Daughters were organized.

Over the next several decades, the parish continued to grow. The exterior of the church was refinished and St. Edward hall was built in the lower level of the church. In 1940, Rev. Francis Shea became pastor. He erected a statue in honor of St. Joseph which was placed in the rear yard of the church. It has since been relocated to the front of the new rectory on Spring Street. He also erected a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes in memory of the boys serving in World War II which now stands on the grounds of the new church.

By 1944, there were three Sunday Masses at 7:00 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and 10:00 a.m. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a large increase in the town's population which led to additional Masses being said each weekend. Rev. John Garrick was pastor from 1946-1959.  During the 1960s the church saw many changes take place under Vatican II as the Mass was now celebrated in English, the altar was brought forward and Saturday afternoon masses commenced. By the 1970s there were two Saturday Masses at 5:00 p.m. and a folk Mass at 7:00 p.m. and eight Masses on Sunday at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 (upper and lower church), 10:30 (upper and lower church), and 12:30 (upper and lower church).

The Dominicans from St. Stephen Priory in Dover assisted in the celebration of the Masses. The pastor was Rev. Lawrence M. Ryan and the curate, Rev. John Mark Hannon. It was Father Hannon who began an active Catholic Youth Organizaton program for the youth of the parish and eventually CYO baseball and basketball teams were formed. When Fr. Hannon was transferred to St. Matthew Church in Dorchester, he established St. Matthew as a sister parish to St. Edward. Following Fr. Hannon's departure from St. Edward Parish, Rev. Gerald McGann was assigned to the parish. Fr. McGann began a building fund for the parish since it had become apparent that the Main Street church needed additional seating capacity and there was little room for expansion on Main Street.

Upon the death of Fr. Ryan in 1978, a Team Ministry was assigned. Rev. Philip J. DesRosier and Rev. Charles P. Weber were appointed to St. Edward Parish. During this time the Archdiocese searched for possible sites for a new church and eventually narrowed the search down to two locations: the Woodward property at 190 North Street and the Kingsbury property on Spring Street. The Team Ministry decided to purchase part of the Kingsbury property on Spring Street and began plans to develop a new St. Edward Church. Controversial actions by the Team Ministry in leaving the old church for the new were difficult ones for the parish, causing many parishioners to leave St. Edward for neighboring churches.

 On October 13, 1980 (the feast of St. Edward), Cardinal Medeiros celebrated the mass of dedication of the new church. The new Spring Street church was of a modernistic design that was energy efficient and built into the surrounding hillside.  In need of library expansion, the Town of Medfield then voted to purchase the church and rectory on Main Street. In 1985 amidst town-wide efforts to save the church, the Selectmen voted 2-1 for church demolition. The church was demolished on October 15, 1985. The rectory was then connected to the library, greatly expanding book and reading space. It, in turn, was torn down in 1997 to make way for the current larger library addition.

The bell and cornerstone were then transferred to the new church. On November 11, 1989, the dedication of the new parish center occurred. The original cross from the steeple of the old church had been stored in the basement of the Town Hall. When reconstruction began on the Town Hall, a number of parishioners donated the funds necessary to have the cross brought to its current location alongside the new church.

In 1990, the Team Ministry was replaced by Rev. Kevin Crowley, who brought back many of the parishioners who had left St. Edwards. Fr. Leroy E. Owens joined St. Edward Parish as pastor in 1996 and has been a uniting force for the parish ever since, as well as a visible resident of Medfield. Under Fr. Owen a new organ and sound system were installed in the church and the seats and interior were redecorated; repairs were made to the church ceiling, new pavers installed in the walkway, the parking lot was resealed and trees were planted in the front of the church. 

Today, over 55 percent of Medfield’s population is listed as Catholic as the 20 Catholics of 1854 number over 6,500 today. The religious education staff at St. Edward works together with over 100 parent and parish volunteers to provide religious education and sacramental preparation for 1300 students in grades 1-10.  St. Edward Parish itself consists of over 1900 families. The church has an active music program with an adult choir, a contemporary music group that is heard at the 6:00 p.m. Mass on Sundays and both a youth and children’s choir. Its youth group for grades 6-12 is also very active. There are currently five Masses celebrated each weekend, 5:00 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.




More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »