History of St. Cecilia's

1. Building A Church

No one recorded the coming of the first Catholic immigrant to Ashland. He may have been a young Irishman who came to work in one of the many shoe factories. Perhaps it was Mark Feeney who came in 1847 to work bottoming boots for D. C. Mowrey on the second floor of the old depot. Mark was young, single and Catholic. He may have helped those who followed him, as many did later, by meeting the immigrant ships in Boston and bringing a newcomer back to share his lodgings, assisting him to find a job and, in general, being friend and support until the newcomer could make it on his own.

The first thing needed by all these people was a way of supporting themselves. Few wanted to return to farming. Some helped build the railroad in from the coast. The railroad then brought others to work in the factories which sent manufactured goods, usually shoes, back to the city over these same tracks.

As the number of Catholics working in the shops increased, the few priests in the diocese did their best to bring them the sacraments. About 1840, Father James Fitton, whose church was in Worcester, was serving all of central and western Massachusetts. The first congregation to build a church in this area was in Saxonville, and a year later, in 1849, St Mary’s of Milford was dedicated. Both of these churches were attended by Father Edward Farrelly who visited missions in both Worcester and Middlesex counties. It would have been to one of these churches or maybe the mission station in Hopkinton that the people of Ashland walked to attend Mass.

The census of 1850 gives Ireland as the birthplace of 118 people in Ashland. Many if not most of them were probably Catholics. When the great Milford parish was divided in 1857, the new priest, Father Patrick Cuddihy, added Ashland as a new mission station. He said the first Mass in this town on December 20, 1858, in the Town Hall. At first Father Cuddihy or his assistant, were only able to come once or twice a year to Ashland. The Catholic population continued to grow. Hopkinton built a small church, St. Malachi’s , in 1866 and Ashland was made a mission station for the pastor, Father Thomas Barry. He came once a month and reported to the Bishop that a class of 50 children was receiving instructions. In 1868 he came every other week and there were 75 children being instructed. Father John P. Ryan became pastor of St. Malachy’s in 1872. He came to Ashland every week and supervised the instruction of 90 children. Soon he came on holy days as well and about that time decided a church was needed in Ashland.

Winter Street had been laid out in 1868. The land was suitable and for $600.00 Father Ryan purchased enough on which to build the church. He also officiated at the ground-breaking ceremony on July 1, 1874. He not only turned the first spadeful of soil but continued until he had uncovered a plot in the shape of a cross. It was a very happy day for the people. The previous January Confirmation had been scheduled at St. Malachi’s. The Bishop came, but the 20 children who lived in Ashland couldn’t make it because of the snow. With a church of their own they would be spared much traveling.

Money was raised, chiefly by subscription. The Catholics gave generously and some of their non-Catholic neighbors also contributed. 

Before the construction actually began, the name of the street was changed. It was now called Esty Street after the former owner of the land, Mr. C. C. Esty of Framingham Centre.

An experienced contractor, J. S. Cole, was busily at work on the foundation by the middle of August, 1874. The granite came from a quarry he had used before. Perhaps it was the quarry off Myrtle Street which had provided the material for the granite mills on Main Street. A change was made in the plans and Mr. Cole built the walls four feet higher than originally intended, a full ten feet high. This made the basement much more useful. The foundation was finished in October and Mr. Bergan of Milford began framing the upper church. He had it fully enclosed before Christmas. In order not to incur too large a debt, the parish decided to stop temporarily at this point and begin again after raising more money. While they could not use the upper church the basement was ready and Mass was celebrated there on Christmas Day. Sunday Mass continued at the Town Hall. Since there is no mention of a furnace until much later, perhaps that is why they chose to use the town building.

In 1875 the custom began of holding biennial fairs. These were major events held in the Town Hall and lasting two weeks. It must have taken the full two years to prepare for them.

By 1877 the Hopkinton parish had outgrown the little church dedicated to St. Malachi and a new much larger building was begun. At this time the Ashland mission station was separated from Hopkinton and joined with South Framingham, forming a new parish under Father John Cullen who had been Father Ryan’s assistant at St. Malachi’s. Father Cullen rented the brick house on Union Street at the end of Esty Street as his residence and became the first priest to live in Ashland. When Framingham Centre was added to his parish, the Bishop suggested he move to South Framingham to be nearer the center of the parish and Ashland again was a mission.

On Christmas Day, 1882, the first Mass was celebrated in the main church. Music was provided by Miss Annie Connors, assisted by Miss Mary McDermott. Another year passed before the building was dedicated. On December 16, 1883, St Cecilia’s parish, priests from all the neighboring parishes and Vicar General Byrne (Archbishop Williams was in Europe) gathered for the dedication ceremony. One important person was missing. Father Ryan had died not long after construction of the church was begun. No doubt he was remembered and missed by many in the congregation. Father Cullen was celebrant of the Mass. The choir and soloists sang Farmer’s “Mass in B Flat.” The altar was decorated with hothouse plants sent by friends from Boston and New Hampshire. It was a beautiful ceremony in a beautiful church. The names of all the priests who had served St. Cecilia’s to this point were given in the local weekly paper. They were Father John P. Ryan, who began the building; Father John Cullen, who saw the work completed; Father John J. Nilan, Father Cullen’s first assistant who later became Bishop of Hartford, Connecticut; and Father Edward P. Allen, Father Cullen’s assistant at this time who later became Bishop of Mobile, Alabama. 


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