Over His Dead Body

By Paul McMorrow | Boston Magazine |

Follow Commonwealth Avenue deep into Brighton, past the beer-soaked Boston College student tenements that funnel down to Cleveland Circle, and slow at the verdant, sprawling expanse that opens up after Greycliff Road. Now look to your right, to the 65-acre St. John’s Seminary-Chancery complex that runs north from Commonwealth for half a mile alongside Lake Street’s august Colonials. The seminary’s stone halls sit shrouded in trees near the property’s far edge. But it’s another building—the four-story, 23,000-square-foot cardinal’s mansion—that dominates the landscape.

Now look behind the mansion, where the ground swells, rising to a hilltop that overlooks the complex and, in fact, all of Boston. On that hilltop is a mausoleum, with rusted gates and busted glass doors that open to a Gothic tomb covered in bird dung. Deep under the floor of this shrine, guarded by stone angels and lions, lie the remains of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell. Down there—that’s where this story really begins.

O’Connell was a sizable man, and he ruled the archdiocese from 1906 until his death in 1944 with a domineering personality. He was the first Boston Catholic leader to command the city’s attention, due in no small part to the confluence of his tenure with a huge influx of Irish immigrants. O’Connell was ruthless; he had come to power by directly politicking the Vatican. But the masses loved him. His elevation to cardinal in 1911 spurred weeks of local celebration and breathless coverage in the newspapers, and was seen as confirmation that Boston had at last become one of the world’s great cities. Reporters trailed him constantly, and anything he uttered was news, just because he had said it.

O’Connell was hyperconscious of his image and, accordingly, had a better understanding of the press than his contemporaries did. He seized control of the Pilot, then an independent Catholic newspaper, and turned it into the official archdiocesan organ it remains today. He wasn’t above making up news, either. In 1915, O’Connell published letters collected from his formative years—as men of his stature were wont to do—to predictable fanfare. Some, though, suspected the cardinal had fictionalized his youthful correspondence. That assumption turned out to be true.

Politically, O’Connell held such clout that members of the state legislature referred to him as "Number One." The mere intimation of his backing, whispered about though never confirmed, was enough to incite a stampede of support that swept Maurice Tobin past James Michael Curley in the 1937 mayor’s race. O’Connell plainly enjoyed the spotlight, and refused to share it. When both he and Governor Curtis Guild were invited to one reception, he bluntly told the event’s organizers, "You must choose between the governor and me." The governor was promptly uninvited.

Such a man could not live in anything but opulence. Even before he was made cardinal, O’Connell had his allies raising funds to move him out of the archbishop’s cramped apartment at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, where streetcars rumbled and vandals lurked, and into a house in the Back Bay, then one on Fisher Hill in Brookline, before finally withdrawing in 1927 to Brighton and the dignified environs of St. John’s Seminary. The church constructed the Commonwealth Avenue mansion for him, and O’Connell brought along the archdiocese’s administrative offices, which were housed in facilities built in a grand Renaissance Revival style that evoked Vatican architecture. O’Connell’s own little Rome.

His new home did more than assuage his ego. It was, above all, a message to Boston’s Brahmin elite. The city’s teeming Catholic masses were to be respected, now that they—or at least their leader—could live as well as their Protestant counterparts. "The Puritan has passed," O’Connell spat during one sermon. "The Catholic remains."

Control of the property also allowed O’Connell to settle an old score. St. John’s, you see, was being run by the Sulpicians, a French priestly order, when O’Connell began direct oversight of the complex. His grudge against the order went back to his own days as a young seminarian at St. Charles’s College in Maryland, where he had spent two miserable years chafing under the Sulpicians’ discipline before the order ultimately declared him unfit for the priesthood. After returning to Boston and enrolling at BC, O’Connell never forgot that snub. He was quick to use his position as archbishop to evict the order from the seminary.

In 1928, O’Connell built the shrine atop the chancery grounds. Although he consecrated it to the Virgin Mary, he intended it more as a memorial to himself, and made plans to be buried there—a riddance to the archdiocese’s tradition of interring archbishops in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a final resting place not nearly regal enough to hold him. And so it is today: the cardinal’s eternal gaze fixed on the seminary he remade in his own image, overlooking the city he ruled for 38 years.

In a way, it’s a city where even now O’Connell holds a lot of sway. Because while he lies there, forgotten by most of us, a tempest is swirling over his remains, one with more than $1 billion in big plans, and the fate of a neighborhood, riding on its outcome.