Founded and built by Italian immigrants, St Leonard’s Church was the first Roman Catholic Church to be established in New England in 1873. Occupying the historic North End of Boston, St Leonard’s church building sits at the corner of Prince and Hanover streets on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
There were few Italians living in Boston city before 1870. However, the number started increasing dramatically in succeeding years as most of them migrated to this city in search of material success. Though they had left their home country, these people were loyal to their Catholic Church doctrines and could not abandon their spiritual beliefs. Hence, a spiritual nourishment was necessary for these people, who were total strangers to the customs and language of dwellers of the city of Boston.
In the year 1873, Archbishop Williams of Boston requested the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province to meet the spiritual needs of the rising Italian immigrants’ population in the city of Boston.
Fr. Angelo Conterno, OFM, became the first pastor of the newly founded parish. He was preceded a year later by Fr. Joachin Guerrini, OFM.
Two years later, in November, a piece of land situated on Prince Street was purchased for a total sum of $9,000.00. It was dedicated by Archbishop Williams, and the foundation was laid for the first Catholic Church in the United States.
However, because of the growing population of Italian immigrants searching for a better life and fortune in America, the need for a larger church became apparent as the small church had reached its limit regarding accommodation. In 1885, the church set out a mission to build a larger church. While the upper church was being built, the basement of the new church was used to serve close to 20,000 Italian Christians. The upper church was planned and built at the cost of about $160,000.00 and, alongside the famed St. Antony Shrine, they were dedicated in November 1899. At that time, the friary was also built on the North Bennet Street.
From 1910 the refurbishment of the upper church was done, and the Franciscan Sisters relocated to the monastery on 31 Prince Street.
In 1917-1919, there was an outbreak of influenza epidemic that left many Italian kids in the city of Boston orphaned. The then pastor of Saint Leonard, Fr. Antony Sousa, established the Home for Italian Children in Jamaican Plain; it remains to date.
Because of the reconfiguration that took place in 2004, St. Leonard’s became a parish encompassing Saint Stephen’s Church and Sacred Heart Italian Church.