Prayer Stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail

St. Leonard of Port Maurice parish celebrates Italian heritage.

The ornate dome draws eyes upward in the first Catholic church built in New England by Italian immigrants. Marian and saints’ images decorate the sanctuary.
The ornate dome draws eyes upward in the first Catholic church built in New England by Italian immigrants. Marian and saints’ images decorate the sanctuary. (photo: Joseph Pronechen photos)

Boston’s Freedom Trail, which includes Paul Revere’s House in the city’s historic North End, traces the early days of the American Revolution and the origins of the United States.

What many people do not realize is that one of Boston’s most beautiful churches — St. Leonard of Port Maurice — is a two-minute walk away.

The Freedom Trail from the house of the Revolution’s most famous silversmith takes a quick turn back to Hanover Street, where St. Leonard’s stands on the opposite corner, with its façade facing Prince Street. The church’s garden, on Hanover, is dotted with statues honoring the Virgin Mary’s appearance to the children at Fatima on one side and the Sacred Heart and St. Anthony with little children on the other side.

There is a high wall of flourishing green vines behind the Our Lady of Fatima statue; even close up the vines look real, yet the greenery is painted in trompe l’oeil style.

Visitors and pilgrims are drawn along the garden’s walkway to the church’s side doors, which act as the main entrance into the first Catholic church built in New England by Italian immigrants. The year was 1873. It’s also the third-oldest Italian-American parish in the country.

The Romanesque Revival style is evident in the arches from the nave to the side-altar Shrines of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother, to both the nave and clerestory windows, and even the Stations of the Cross. All have been meticulously restored. On Dec. 17, 2017, the church was reopened with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley celebrating Mass. It had been closed for nearly a year for the restoration.

The mural filling the apse draws eyes upward. The scene depicts Mary’s assumption, showing an image of the Blessed Mother on a cloud, escorted by a court of angels and cherubs. The images of haloed apostles in various poses of reverence and awe are beside the empty, flower-filled tomb. Our Lady is also honored in two smaller murals framed by lunette-like arches above the side shrine. One shows the Holy Spirit descending on her at Pentecost; the other shows her coronation by God the Father and Jesus.

The recently restored Old Master’s-style Assumption mural was completed around 1943, likely for one of the church’s anniversaries, the pastor, Franciscan Father Antonio Nardoianni of the Order of Friars Minor, says. The pastor is not the first Franciscan to have shepherded this church. In 1873, the bishop of Boston — Archbishop John Joseph Williams, the first archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese — put the Franciscans in charge of taking care of this church and the spiritual needs of the people, and they have been here ever since, for the last 145 years. The church itself was first finished and dedicated in 1899. Before that, the parishioners worshipped in the completed lower level.

Father Nardoianni said his aim for the restoration was for the church to be returned to its original style. That included bringing up and restoring the original marble altar, which had been in the downstairs St. Anthony Shrine.

Some replacements were also needed. Out went the carpeting and in came white tile flooring. The new pews, custom made of cherrywood, are in keeping with the Romanesque style. Stained-glass windows were returned to their original beauty, from soft pastel-like designs in the nave windows to the vibrant colors of the windows of the Sacred Heart, Blessed Mother, angels and saints in the upper clerestory rows.

A litany of saint portrayals abounds in the church’s paintings and statuary. Most are original, but some have been added, like that of St. Padre Pio, who stands by fellow Franciscans Francis, Anthony of Padua, and Leonard, the church’s namesake. Lining the nave, St. Joseph and Our Lady of Grace are accompanied by such saints as Thérèse, Maria Goretti, Lucy, Peregrine, Jude, and Patrick, the Boston Archdiocese’s patron.

Below the Assumption mural in the sanctuary, other saint images, framed in individual Roman arches, line the apse. Among them are Joseph, Bernadine of Siena, Clare, Bonaventure, Elizabeth of Hungary and, in the center, Leonard of Port Maurice, whose feast is celebrated Nov. 26. “St. Leonard of Port Maurice was a great preacher of the Franciscan order, and he was the one who spread the devotion to the Stations of the Cross more than anyone else,” Father Nardoianni explained. “He personally had them installed in 571 churches. And he was the first one to do the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum.”

His name comes from where he was born in 1676, Porto Maurizio, Italy. Leonard had a reputation as a remarkable preacher, giving missions in many places; thousands at a time would come to hear him, prompting countless conversions.

Besides his devotion to spreading the Stations of the Cross, Leonard also promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Conception and the Blessed Sacrament.

“He prompted the devotion to adoration,” said Father Nardoianni. The spirituality of its patron saint led the church leadership to make the Blessed Sacrament central to worship. “We restored the stations and also introduced adoration every Friday; then at 3pm, we have the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and Benediction,” Father Nardoianni said.

Newly restored and repainted reverential bas relief Stations of the Cross line the nave, alternating with the stained glass. Helping to deepen meditation on each station are the figures, all with individual expressions to ponder and empathize with. Who can’t help but be moved by this depiction of Our Blessed Mother, which reflects her sorrowful heart, the Magdalen’s grief that causes her to cover her face, the care Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus express as they lower the Savior from the cross, and the strength of John?

Arches of gold frame each station, with reliefs of 13 angels and symbols related to the stations. Angels are showcased elsewhere, too. Beautifully carved cherubs form the corbels decorating the base of columns that seem to support arches for the large dome.

The dome is coffered in bright gold, with each individual coffer filled with ornate decoration and outlined in red. At the base of the dome, in each of the four triangular corners, the Evangelists are shown at work on the Gospels. The coffered ceilings in the rest of the arches in the church are also as decorative, but in a muted color.

Because this parish church draws visitors and tourists to pray at all hours, the church is open until midnight during the summertime and until 8pm during colder months. Father Nardoianni shared how “people from outside the parish have been very generous to our appeal” for the $3.2-million restoration project. Many donations have come in so far from out of the City on a Hill and the Bay State.

Father Nardoianni said the church draws not only Catholics, but non-Catholics, who often ask questions about the faith. On St. Anthony’s feast this June, when he and a fellow friar had just locked the church, a woman, with an infant and her mother in a wheelchair, asked to say a prayer.

They prayed fervently in front of the altar, blew a kiss to the saints and gratefully thanked the priests and told them that every time they come to Boston they come to St. Leonard’s. Then they identified themselves as Albanian Muslims.

The priests are pleased that so many feel welcome in the sacred space. Father Nardoianni explained of the late hours: “It’s very moving when you see young families kneel and say their prayers. The faith is very dear to them.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.