The story of St Joseph Church is a story of a unique people who helped build Salem’s industries and went on to influence all aspects of the city. As industrialization took hold in Salem in the mid 1800s there was a need for laborers able to handle the increasingly complicated machinery in the mills and factories.
This growing need fueled the arrival of large number of French Canadians who moved from severe economic conditions in the largely agrarian Quebec. The Quebec Province at this time was under much stress with a growing population with limited opportunities. Canada’s population had grown by 400% between 1784 and 1844. It was nearly impossible to pursue farming due to the non-availability of suitable land. Farmland between 1784 and 1844 had only increased by 275%. Much of it was owned by lumber interests that prevented expansion. Canada also lagged behind the United States in industrialization and wages. This combination of poverty, low wages and lack of opportunity made the United States
and especially New England very appealing.
In 1860 the French population in Massachusetts was some 8,000 people which was 20% of the state population. By 1880 the French population was 81,000, almost 39% of the total population. These immigrants settled mainly in the Massachusetts mill towns where their populations were larger than many Quebec cities. By 1930 the French population was at 251,000 and comprised 45% of the state’s population. With such a large population shift the immigrants were able to develop a ‘little Canada” within many cities. Here the French Canadians could maintain their linguistic, cultural and religious identity.
The Stage Point area of Salem was home to the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Mill as well as a variety of other businesses and factories spawned by the huge mill. The Stage Point or as it was later called “La Pointe” area became home to the French Canadians. While wages were much better in the US than in Canada they still left people in poor circumstances that fostered the growth of crowded tenements and poor housing conditions.
Salem’s French Canadians brought their strong Catholic faith with them and while they were able to attend church at Immaculate Conception Church, it was English speaking. In 1872 the first French Mass was celebrated at Immaculate Conception Church. The French Canadians still longed for their own parish and French speaking priests. The small group of French Canadians who were Protestant held services at the YMCA in 1873.
In addition to geographic parishes with boundaries, the Catholic Church allows for the formation of national parishes that cater to a particular ethnic group without boundaries.That set the stage for Salem’s first National French Parish. After meeting in Immaculate Conception Church, the small parish of 90 families purchased and moved to the Seaman’s Bethel on Herbert Street in 1873.
The Seaman’s Bethel had been a chapel for sailors use during maritime days. This small building barely met their needs. After years of fund raising, they were ready to build a church and wanted it to be in the Point area where most of the French Canadians had settled. In 1881, they purchased the Luscomb estate at 39 Lafayette Street. This block that would later hold the Church, rectory, convent and school buildings, was a residential area with one small provisions store at 37 Lafayette. The homeowners in this spacious area were mariners, merchants, carpenters and coopers who had serviced the fading maritime trade of the early 1800s.
After tearing down the Luscomb dwelling, a wooden church was built. At the time there were only a few hundred parishioners. In 1884 the parish purchased the adjacent Elwell estate which was converted to a parochial residence for the priests. By 1889 the parish had some 5,000 members. The parish saw a need to educate their children in their own parochial school which would keep alive their cultural and religious identity. In 1892 a four story school was built on the lot that was growing as successive pastors bought adjacent lands on this block. When the parish completed the purchase of this block, it was bisected by Harbor Court which was later donated by the city for a playground for the children.
A convent was also built to house the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, who taught at the school and also ran the City Orphan Asylum on Lafayette Street. In 1903, the Sisters of Ste. Chretienne arrived from France, where they were fleeing religious persecution. These sisters replaced the Sisters of Charity in the St Joseph School.
In 1911 a new rectory was built. Given the size of the parish, the wooden church was no longer viewed as adequate and was moved to the back of the lot on Salem Street to make way for a large brick church.
The new St. Joseph Church was also completed in 1911. It was an imposing brick and stone building. Built in the Romanesque Revival style it boasted twin stone towers 185 feet high. Between the two towers was a massive statue of St. Joseph. (see above photo).
This Church, along with the adjacent buildings and a good part of Salem, fell victim to the great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Only three years old, the church was gutted by the raging inferno that destroyed so much of the city, leaving a foundation and a few walls.
After the fire, the parish was able to renovate the basement and tower base areas for church services. Classrooms were built above until the school was re-built. This arrangement lasted several years while parishioners, burned out of their homes and jobs, struggled financially.
In 1917, a three story brick rectory was built in the Second Renaissance Revival Style at the corner of Lafayette and Harbor streets. In 1921 a new high school building was completed in the same architectural style on the site of the 1892 school. A new convent for the Sisters of Assumption and an elementary school were completed in 1925.
For many years fundraising continued for the re-building of the church. In 1948, plans were submitted to the Archdiocese for the new St. Joseph’s designed by James O’Shaughnessy, a Boston architect. In 1949 the cornerstone was laid for the new church, which would follow the cruciform
design of the previous two churches.
The parish plan was to have services in the school while the new church was being built. Before demolition of the old church, the large statue of St. Joseph that stood over the church doors was removed and placed in the school yard. When construction began there wasn’t a suitable space for the eighteen foot statue so it was buried under what is now the parking lot.
The Church was completed in 1950 and is illustrative of the International Style of architecture, in which mass and weight are minimized to highlight volume, with little ornamentation.
The parish continued to grow throughout the 1950s. In 1954 the parish population was 5,540. Things began to change in the early 1960s when many families moved to different areas and parishes. Salem also had a growing French Canadian population in South Salem with its own parish.
St Joseph’s population continued to decline in the 1960s, although a new convent was built in 1962. In the 1970s there was a new wave of immigrants to Salem from Latin America and Caribbean countries who settled in the Point area, forming a growing Hispanic community. In 1974 the parish population was 4,800; by 1979 it was 3,700. In 1980, the high school was closed and the elementary grades moved into the building. In 1983, the elementary school building built in 1925 was demolished due to
structural issues. During the population shift, Spanish speaking priests were assigned to St Joseph’s to help the immigrant Hispanic community. That focus continued into the 21st century.
In 2004, during a reconsolidation by the Archdiocese of Boston, 65 churches were closed. St. Joseph’s was on the list and was closed.
Since that time there have been ongoing discussions and arguments over the future of the church and buildings. The argument about the historic nature of the property and the fact that it qualifies for historic site designation and should be re-purposed have given way to those who espouse its demolition. Many argued that it was and is the most tangible reminder of the French Canadian immigration and the impact this group has had on Salem’s history. The discussions, however, are over and the demolition has begun as the recent photo shows, with the removal of
the large crucifix on the facade. Within a few weeks, the church will be
relegated to old photographs.
While we will no longer have this landmark that was so notable in the skyline of Salem, we will continue to have many memories of the once vibrant parish that is now gonne.
Requiescat in pace.
A special thank you to Nelson Dionne for providing historical information.