Boston Songs in Stone

Chances are, there's a Patrick C. Keely church or cathedral near you.

In the 50 years between 1846 and 1896, after emigrating from Tipperary, Ireland, the architect designed 26 cathedrals and well over 600 churches from Montreal to Baton Rouge, from the East Coast to Iowa. Some of his outstanding works are in Boston. Because my time in the city was limited, I focused on three landmark examples little-known to travelers and representative of his work around the country.

Certainly the most magnificent of his accomplishments in “the Hub” of New England is the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But by no means does that grand house of God overshadow the other impressive Keely works in these parts. During my brief stay, I visited three — St. James the Greater, Holy Trinity and St. Mary's — and found all rich in tradition, beauty and physical reverence.

St. James the Greater Church lies just a few blocks from the cathedral, and from Boston Common. The massive brick-and-stone Romanesque basilica-style edifice poses a stately, regal appearance in busy Chinatown. Finished the same year as the cathedral, it shows Keely a versatile master of styles. This church replaced his original structure on the same site, from where Father John Williams was named Boston's first archbishop. In all, St. James the Greater produced four bishops, including James Healey, the nation's first black prelate.

In St. James' noble, opulent interior, Roman arches seem to be repeated and echoed everywhere; a standout example is the unusual set of four recessing-keystone arch doorways that lead to the sacristy. The Latin inscription on the high altar refers to the Transfiguration scene above, which is joined by other Gospel scenes in which St. James played a part.

Larger-than-life-sized statues of the apostles and evangelists keep watch from the perimeters of the 1,500-seat nave. Their imposing, yet comforting, presence compensates for the relative scarcity of stained glass here. It's a surprise to hear Father Hugh O'Regan, longtime administrator, explain that the statues are metal as they look for all the world like marble.

Only the clerestory, supported by Scotch granite pillars with gold Corinthian caps, has stained-glass windows. Their medallions salute various Boston trades in this long-time “workers' church.” One window honors St. James' quartet of bishops.

The great 1867 Hook organ from the original church, with its Aeolian-Skinner addition, can be heard at the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. The lower church for weekday Masses glows with light woods, soft carpeting and serene colors.

Classic Elements

Nearer the cathedral still, Holy Trinity Church's Gothic edifice in Roxbury stone was dedicated on Trinity Sunday in 1877. Parishioner Louis Prang would easily recognize this church, which remains exceptionally close to its original detailing. Who's Prang? Father O'Regan refreshes our memory: Prang originated mass printing of Christmas cards.

Keely's interior here has all the classic elements, from dramatically curved ceilings to an intricate reredos (an ornately decorated partition behind an altar) that rises in Gothic spires. Tall spire-shrines honor the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother. Angels fill smaller spires lining the top.

Above, the Holy Family appears in stained glass, the first of many elaborate windows. Harmonizing with them are poly-colored statues of the apostles. The sanctuary is elaborate, yet disciplined and restrained; it's as though Keely set out to “write” a visual liturgical hymn.

Across the Charles River, St. Mary's Church sits in Charlestown near Bunker Hill, site of the first major battle of the American Revolution.

In fact, the Bunker Hill monument is just one block from this stunning monument to the Mother of God.

St. Mary's began in 1830 as Boston's second parish. Ever since this present edifice of Rockport granite with brick trimming was dedicated in 1892, visitors have never ceased marveling over the structure. It's simply breathtaking. Many feel it is Keely's pièce de résistance, a loving gift to Mary that outshines even the cathedral. I'm not sure about that, but there are few sanctuaries that better communicate the glory of God in Mary than this one.

Marian Magnificence

Architects, too, even nonreligious ones, are awestruck over Keely's ingenuity and innovation on display here. He used no pillars except for the two supporting the choir gallery. Uninterrupted space allows perfect views of the altar and artistry around the nave. Every detail harmonizes in a heavenly balance of light, color and form.

Angels carved at the end of the wooden trusses that support the ceiling in the 15th-century English-church manner watch over the assembly.

Visually, everything is lush, generous. The 27-foot-high altar is an ornate blend of Rutland and Carrara marbles and onyx that rises in rows of Gothic spires under which are the tabernacle, statues of the apostles to either side and angels. The marble side altars are shrines to the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph, while windows that reach to the sky in the apse showcase events central to our salvation. Magnificent Munich windows surround the congregation with the story of Mary's life and role in our redemption in scenes, expressions and colors of celestial beauty within exquisitely illuminated stained-glass framing.

Another surprise: These windows contain pairs of scenes, an upper and lower one. For example, Mary's betrothal to Joseph is paired with the Annunciation; the Fall of Man in the Garden is paired with the promise of Gabriel in the Annunciation. Among the smaller windows, one depicts Our Lady of the Scapular, while windows over the choir gallery picture the Church Triumphant.

A murallike painting by the gallery, with its 1893 Woodbury Harris organ (whose more than 2,400 pipes fill the church for Sunday Mass), shows Mary receiving holy Communion from St. John the Evangelist. The sculptured alabaster stations of the cross, framed in columnar arches, is the only set of its kind in existence.

The detail is yet another exceptional feature in Keely's masterpiece, St. Mary's — and another example of the stunning, worshipful beauty he brought, with great craftsmanship and dedication, to every Church structure he had a hand in planning, designing or building.

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.