The busy Back Bay section of Boston is just a mile from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the country, with many nearby sites figuring prominently in the earliest events of the American Revolution.
But in Back Bay a different, quieter kind of revolution has taken place in countless lives since May 1945, when Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston at the time, designated and dedicated a church as St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine — now a center of perpetual adoration for the archdiocese.
In those first decades after St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine was established, it ranked near the top of most-visited churches in the Archdiocese of Boston. The archdiocese bought the edifice in 1935 from the Universalist Society, which had built this neo-Gothic church only 10 years earlier but had shrinking membership. Already it was known as “The Church Beautiful.”
On Dec. 8, 1935, Boston Cardinal William O’Connell dedicated the granite church at 1105 Boylston St. at the corner of Ipswich St. He named it after St. Clement, the fourth pope, who was converted by St. Peter and martyred in 100 A.D.
In those early years, St. Clement’s became an additional chapel for a nearby parish until Cardinal Cushing officially turned it into a Eucharistic shrine a decade later.
Cardinal Cushing invited the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to be the shrine’s custodians since adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was a primary purpose of the semi-cloistered nuns. Every month, the cardinal himself came to celebrate Mass.
Quickly, the shrine drew people from all over the archdiocese. Many joined the nuns for prayer and made this church into what Cardinal Cushing called a “spiritual powerhouse.” Besides streams of informal visitors, the lay adoration groups organized as the Knights and Ladies of the Blessed Sacrament numbered 7,000-plus regulars. The Nocturnal Adoration Society did its part too, numbering 2,600 by 1949.
Well-known Churchmen came to the shrine. Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen gave a conference in 1946 on Eucharistic adoration here.
The late 1960s, however, brought changes in the neighborhood and in society and blurred the shrine’s focus. With many schools a short walk away, the church changed from a Eucharistic shrine into the unofficial St. Clement Student Parish. But not for long.
In 1976 the church returned to its original purpose and regained its original title as St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine when the Oblates of the Virgin Mary arrived from Italy and were invited to restore St. Clement’s to its devotional purpose. Along with the renewal, they established Our Lady of Grace Seminary, which forms the congregation’s future priests and brothers.
The shrine underwent another change in 1998. In this latest resurgence, the 16th-century Gothic-style church received a physical renovation and restoration. Then, in 2009, Cardinal Seán O’Malley celebrated Mass and Exposition on the Solemnity of the Assumption to restart perpetual adoration after a 40-year hiatus.
In a word, St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine flourished again, and it remains so. There’s an active adoration society. The church fills up for Sunday Mass, and for many minutes after the last blessing, no one hurries to leave, as they remain before the monstrance.
While there is a mix of ages, “it’s mostly young worshippers from the local colleges, especially young professionals,” explained Father Peter Grover of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and longtime director of the shrine. Students, newly married couples and professionals come from the college-hospital belt of the city. A few stones’ throw away are Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT, Berkeley School of Music, Boston Conservatory and Emmanuel College.
While volunteers run a pretty sophisticated program of 24-hour adoration, Father Grover said the most popular times are evening and early morning, before or after work. The shrine “draws a lot of people even from out of town for an hour of adoration,” he said.
Father Grover said that people appreciate the prayerful atmosphere. While many perpetual adoration chapels are small, “here you get the whole church with stained-glass windows — a prayerful monastic atmosphere unique from other perpetual adoration and Eucharistic chapels.”
The high stained-glass tracery windows, fashioned old-world style and formed as Gothic triplets to represent the Trinity, are patterns without scenes. Their geometric designs are carried out in blue, rose, white and red hues.
As the church was transformed for Catholic worship, the triple sanctuary windows reminiscent of medieval style were installed to honor saints with a connection to the Blessed Sacrament. The quartet of tall panels picture four of them, complete with two scenes from each of their lives — St. John the Evangelist; St. Pascal Baylon, selected by Pope Leo XIII as protector of all Eucharistic congresses and works; St. Thomas Aquinas, who composed the office and hymns for Corpus Christi and wrote hymns including Tantum Ergo sung at Benediction and Panis Angelicus; and St. Clare, who put to flight Saracens besieging Assisi by holding up the monstrance before them. The St. John window sheds light on this Eucharistic saint. Father Grover explains the other Gospels focus on the Last Supper with Christ’s instruction, “Do this in memory of me.” But St. John had “a different take on it.” Chapter 6 of his Gospel “introduced the Bread of Life, which gives eternal life — the emphasis is more on eternal life with Christ through the Eucharist.”
Below these saints, the sanctuary is spanned by a beautiful reredos of quartered oak carved with delicate, lacelike details. Adoring angels who flank the throne of exposition are copies of Fra Angelico. The altar, now brought forward, is made of light cream-yellow marble that blends with the oak. The golden inscription of its front offers this holy reminder: Cor Eucharisticum Jesu, Miserere Nobis — “Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy on Us.”
Large carved and colorful statues — Our Blessed Mother on one side, St. Clement on the other — stand in wooden shrines with carved Gothic canopies.
The restored sanctuary gleams with its green, cream and mahogany marbles. Part of the 1998 restoration-renovation included a wooden pulpit designed and handcrafted by artist and master craftsman John Grover, the shrine director’s brother, to match the reredos. He also painted the original monotone-gray stations in colored details. And he turned the interior’s plaster walls and vaulted ceiling into a truly medieval monastic interior by using a method of faux painting that even close-up flawlessly imitates 16th-century Gothic stonework.
When floor tile to blend with the Gothic design seemed impossible to find, the shrine personnel turned to St. Anthony. A salesman casually tossed an odd sample, and it proved the right match. The salesman’s name? Anthony.
Around the time of the renovation, the director found a musical jewel — an 1898 Cole & Woodberry pipe organ from another area church. The organ needed refurbishing and reassembly, and when the organ craftsman was unable to give the time, an architectural student volunteered to do the job under the master craftsman’s supervision.
Father Grover said it fits perfectly into the shrine and has “a happy sound to it.” Of course, it fits the Old World monastic feel, too.
“A lot of people benefit from the graces here. You notice it right away,” said Father Grover. “They just stay in the church; they don’t run out after Mass. The spirituality here is different. You don’t have to remind people to go to Mass on holy days. The shrine is well-attended, and people are well-disciplined as regards their spiritual life. They’re very reverent. Adoration restores reverence. They feel that presence, and it’s easy to pray in this environment.”
He added, “People leave and say this is the best experience they have had in Boston.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.