St. Cecilia’s

A lot has been written about St. Cecilia’s church and the many parishioners and clergy over the years. Equally of course, can be said of all the religious organizations in town, but today I would like to visit Esty Street.

At a time when there wasn’t instant access to news or entertainment, Ashland residents relied upon community gatherings to visit, exchange information, and to practice their faith.

The Catholic community in Ashland probably started around 1840, and steadily evolved over the years. Mass was being held in the Town Hall on a very limited basis in 1858, and by 1866 the local faithful were attending St. Malachy’s in Hopkinton.

By 1872 it became clear that a church in Ashland was needed. Religious instruction was being provided weekly to the children requiring the attendance of Father John Ryan of St. Malachy’s. Ashland needed a parish of its own, and the search began for a suitable spot for a new church.

Father Ryan purchased land for $600.00 on what was then Winter Street in Ashland. The name was subsequently changed to Esty Street after the former landowner, Constantine C. Esty, Esq. of Framingham.

After the official groundbreaking in 1874, Contractor J.S. Cole was hired to begin construction of the new church. The foundation was built with granite most likely quarried off of Myrtle St. in Ashland, and constructed high enough to make the basement useful for parish activities. A Mr. Bergan from Milford framed the building later that year, but construction temporarily stopped until more funds were available. The basement was completed to the point where Christmas Mass could be held, but the Town Hall continued to be used until the church was completed. Finally, by Christmas 1883, the building was dedicated with Vicar General Byrne in attendance. Ashland finally had its own Catholic church, St. Cecilia’s, after the patron saint of musicians.

Unfortunately, Father Ryan did not live to see this day. He died shortly after construction of the church began. Father John Cullen, whose parish covered South Framingham, the Centre, and what is now MCI-Framingham, replaced Father Ryan until a permanent replacement could be found. Father Cullen lived in the brick house on Union St. directly across from the end of Esty St.

The Archdiocese in Boston didn’t take long to assign a permanent priest to St. Cecilia’s. They decided that Father Cullen had too large a flock, and assigned Father Michael Delaney as pastor in Ashland. Keeping in mind that there was no parish rectory for the Father, he took up temporary residence in the Central House downtown. It was said that he was the consummate “teetotaler” and the Central House probably wasn’t the best choice for him, or the clientele for that matter! That didn’t last long however. He eventually moved to the house on the corner of Park Rd. and Summer St. (across from what is today the American Legion).

Change, again, was inevitable. Father Delaney was replaced by Father Heffernan in 1890. A new rectory was constructed, and then the worst scenario a young parish could imagine. On October 23, 1892, fire broke out in the new church. Two firemen were injured battling a blaze that destroyed the west wing of the church. Undaunted, Father Heffernan said Mass that Sunday on a temporary alter amongst the rubble. Repairs began as soon as possible, and 8 months later were completed.

St. Cecilia’s saw a host of clergy over the next 40 years. Fathers Splaine, Hamiliton, Horgan, Regan, Cronin, and Ashland native: Father Michael Heenan. Two of them died tragically. Father Cronin was killed in a railroad accident in 1918, and Father Heenan died from injuries suffered after being struck by a car in Montreal in 1932. He had just celebrated Mass at St. Cecilia’s that prior Sunday, and according to Historians Frank and Kay Powers’ research, had been an assistant to St. Joseph’s in Lynn. The funeral was held at St. Cecilia’s and was reported to be the biggest the town had ever seen.

The church had survived bad economic times, the First World War, and the Great Depression. Families left town for employment elsewhere leaving parish revenues at a new time low. It was time for a shot in the arm, and it came with Father Charles Donahue in 1936. With fresh paint, a new heating system, and a new floor, he revitalized a worn house. He also brought something to Ashland that didn’t exist before: his love for a parish band. Charging 25 cents a week for lessons, $10.00 each for trumpets, and the parish footing the cost of the drums, Father Donahue assembled the first St. Cecilia’s marching band. A little rusty at first, the good Father convinced the Memorial Day committee to let his band march at the end of the parade. Within 10 years they perfected their craft and were requested throughout the state.

Father Donahue was a favorite among the local powers that were. In 1939, while celebrating Father Donahue’s Silver Jubilee, Selectmen Chairman George V. Sullivan collapsed after he proposed a toast at the grand banquet held in Father Donahue’s honor upstairs at town hall. Sadly, George passed away the next day (I wrote a “Stories of Ashland” titled “He Chose to Lead” about George Sullivan a year or two ago. It is available on the Ashland Historical website).

Interestingly, at the time there was no official Catholic cemetery in Ashland. Burials were in Hopkinton and Framingham. Chairman Sullivan was working hard to have a portion of Wildwood consecrated for Catholic burials. Little did he know he would be the first to be interred…

Next month, the war years, and the “new” church.

Many thanks to Kay and Frank Powers for their extensive historical research.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
October 2010