Catholics in Boston After the Revolution

The Revolutionary War shook up American society in ways no one had foreseen. One of its effects was greater religious freedom. New England Patriots realized they had to make alliances with Patriots in other colonies, most of whom had different faiths, and with the French. They could no longer afford to alienate Catholics, Quakers, and others.

Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had traditions of religious freedom before the Revolution, and Patriots like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pushed their states to enact similar laws during and shortly after the war. Though it would take until the 1830s before the state of Massachusetts stopped collecting taxes to benefit the majority church, New England society had already started to become more tolerant of minority religions—even Catholicism.

The first Catholic Church in Boston opened in 1783 when a priest moved into what had been a defunct Huguenot Protestant Church on School Street. The letter K on the map above shows where that building stood. The street labeled Cornhill is now called Washington Street, and the church labeled C is the Old South Meeting-house, still standing. For the first time ever, Catholics in Boston had a place to worship as they chose.

Anti-Catholicism continued to be a factor in Massachusetts politics and society for decades after the Revolutionary War, and even rose in response to increased immigration from Catholic countries. But “Pope-Night” was no longer a holiday on Boston’s calendar.

Image source: Detail of 1722 map of Boston from James Stark, Antique Views of the Towne of Boston (1882).

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.