In East Cambridge, a community tells its story in churches.
It’s hard to get a proper sense of East Cambridge as a neighborhood without taking the walk from Lechmere to Inman Square down Cambridge Street. The impact of the many immigrants is apparent in the architecture every step of the way.
“Basically, East Cambridge developed into a community of Irish, Polish, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants,” says Sarah Boyer, formerly the City of Cambridge’s oral historian and now an author of historical nonfiction, including “All in the Same Boat,” a book about East Cambridge.
Those communities and the others that made up East Cambridge left a built legacy with a strong sense of pride in the forms of their churches. The various immigrant churches still stand as beautiful testaments to the communities that built them.
“Instantly visual—it really does stand out,” Boyer says of the street’s architecture. “Of course the church was the center of things [for immigrants] because, with the exception of Sacred Heart, all the churches were Polish, Italian, and Portuguese, and I would assume the priest spoke the native language when they were doing the masses.”
St. Francis of Assisi Church, at 325 Cambridge St., wasn’t always the site of a brick church, or even a Catholic one. But its impact on East Cambridge was in helping set the tone for a community of world churches. St. Francis was one of the earliest signs of a neighborhood pattern developing in East Cambridge, according to author Susan Maycock’s book “East Cambridge.”
Its 175 years of history trace a journey from its Protestant beginnings as the wooden, Second Baptist Church in 1827, to its distinctly Italian, brick style today. The Baptist congregation moved on from the church as the neighborhood changed and it fell on hard financial times. It ended up in the hands of the Franciscans in 1917, according to Archdiocese documents, and became a parish of Italians from the cities of Avellino and Potenza, Boyer says.
The brick upper portion was added in the ’30s, long after fire had damaged the wood. From a triangular pediment that today hosts a statue of St. Francis himself to the simple symmetry of windows, the church’s classic face and tower are immediately recognizable.
The church still has the symmetrical openings and doors it inherited from its Baptist forebears. Today, its tower, an Italian campanile, echoes its many ancestors in the home country, while the front of the church displays the patron saint proudly.
It was home to the likes of Cambridge’s Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci and mosaic artist Luigi Totino, who designed the floor of the State House’s Hall of Flags, according to “East Cambridge.” In the decade after, the church community would raise funds for Sacco and Vanzetti and be the starting point for a march after their funeral that stretched from East Cambridge to the North End.
“The story of a parish really embraces many stories,” reads one Archdiocese summary of St. Francis’s “Golden Jubilee,” its 50th anniversary. “It embraces the stories of peoples and traditions, of priests and parishioners. It is a story of progress and decline, of newness and renewal.”
“It’s really the way [immigrants] were welcomed into the community, and it was their anchor,” Boyer says, noting the legacy of parish clubs and associations that bonded immigrant communities together, including in East Cambridge. “If they didn’t know English and they were still learning it in schools, they could speak it in the churches, they’d have their different things with.”
Entirely different from St. Francis, just down the road on 6th Street, is the Church of the Sacred Heart, founded by the area’s Irish community.
With a corner tower, ornate trimming, and original use of blue granite from nearby Cambridge and Somerville quarries, the church is representative of the Victorian Gothic Revival, a style with aims both religious and naturalistic in form. Gothic churches frequently reach to the heavens with towering spires. And although the church eventually had to trim down its tower, the building still looms tall.
Sacred Heart was constructed by the prolific Patrick W. Ford, according to Cambridge Historical Commission documents, whose list of churches designed runs the gamut of Massachusetts mill towns from Lawrence to Clinton. Sacred Heart, built in the 1870s, was the largest and most expensive church constructed at the time in East Cambridge. The rapid dispersal of Ford’s work, reported in the Cambridge Chronicle, may have been due to a quickly expanding Irish population. For a successful Irish parish, their church was the apple of their eye.
“As an edifice, the church is an addition to the architectural triumphs of the diocese, and as a temple of God, it is at once a monument and a wonder of Catholic faith and endeavor,” explains one Archdiocese of Boston treatise from the time.
Sacred Heart includes an altar constructed in Cheltenham, England. Designed by an artist named Peter Pugin, son of an Augustus Welby Pugin, an English architect who was central to the design of the English parliament’s Gothic details and interiors, the altar is practically unique in New England for its connection back to the parliament, according to art historical analysis in the Cambridge Historical Commission’s files.
Over the past decades, notable East Cambridge churches—including St. Hedwig’s and Our Immaculate Conception, Polish and Lithuanian churches, respectively—have been converted into condos after protracted debacles in the community. Both closings were met with resistance, anger, and deep sadness. Old articles in the Cambridge Chronicle make a point of highlighting the community’s sentiments.
“It felt like a wake,” Phyllis Nowiszewski, a St. Hedwig’s parishioner who had been married there in 1956, told the Cambridge Chronicle in 1995. “You tried to think of the past, of the good memories, and you felt sad.”
Our Immaculate Conception was one of the last homes to the Lithuanian community in Greater Boston, where ties to both language and culture could be preserved. Designed by the firm Maginnis and Walsh, the church was said to be just the second Lithuanian church in the nation at the time, although independent verification of that is difficult, according to the Cambridge Historical Commission.
Lithuanian immigrants arrived in great numbers from the Russian Empire toward the end of the 19th century. The church opened the first Lithuanian parochial school in the archdiocese in 1926, approximately 15 years after its founding.
A thin, flat bell tower makes the face of the church taller than any other part, topped off with a borderline quaint tile roof and a gold cross. The tiles are almost Spanish, but its brick spire is deeply reminiscent of medieval Lithuanian architecture. The Draugus news, a Lithuanian worldwide news outlet, suggests that the architects found postcards depicting the 14th century Lithuanian Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God in Vilnius.
Inside, the heritage was clear: in stained glass, a depiction of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn, a pilgrimage site in Vilnius, the nation’s capital. Toward the end of its tenure as an active parish, Immaculate Conception faced conversion into condos as the Lithuanian community dispersed into the suburbs and developers sought spaces to convert into homes—alongside St. Hedwig’s, the local Polish church.
St. Hedwig’s, which sat on Otis Street, saw far more architectural change since its construction—it, like St. Francis, changed hands from a wooden Protestant church to a brick Catholic one. Its community had its fair share of input in the building, especially after the Hurricane of 1938, when the wooden structure was rebuilt with brick. What had been a tall, white, steepled church became a modest, round-roofed community center.
The hurricane of 1938 spared the altar and the pews, and less than a year later, the parishioners had raised enough funds to host services once again. Cantabridgians of all stripes came together to celebrate when the church reopened on Thanksgiving Day. Today, its symmetrical fenestration certainly feels almost Italianate, but without a tower like St. Francis.
“Our parents didn’t have much money, but when the hurricane came, they donated to build the new church,” one parishioner told the Cambridge Chronicle at the time of St. Hedwig’s closing. “They all got together and bought the bricks for the new church.”
“[The immigrant churches] just reinforce the pride and love that people have for their home country … they would invite friends who were not of their background to come and participate,” Boyer says of these community buildings. “They really strengthened the neighborhood, because people in that neighborhood had just about nothing—they came over and had so little.”