The Fate of Boston’s ‘Christmas Tree’ Parish
by Christine Niles • ChurchMilitant.com • December 18, 2015
Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Boston introduced the Christmas tree to America in the late 1800s. Now it’s being converted into luxury condos in the city’s gay district.
The first Catholic church built in Boston’s South End, Holy Trinity was founded in 1844 and later moved to its current location in 1877. A “national” church without boundaries, Holy Trinity came to be known as the city’s German church, open to any Catholic of German extraction in the city. It was a bustling parish, with 6,000 faithful, a parochial school (the first in the nation), its own newspaper, and a flourishing devotional, social and cultural life.
The Germans at the parish imported their Christmas customs to the New World, among them Christmas candlelight processions, decorated Christmas cards, and the “tannenbaum,” or Christmas pine tree. Protestants quickly co-opted the German custom, soon making the Christmas tree — rather than the Nativity scene — the focal point of holiday decorations in the home (which earned Protestantism the pejorative “the tannenbaum religion” by Catholics).
Christmas Midnight Mass at Holy Trinity
In the late 20th century, Holy Trinity also served as a refuge for the Traditional Latin Mass community, where the liturgies were offered within the ornate and richly decorated neo-gothic cathedral — the work of New England’s most respected architect, Patrick Keeley.
All that came to an end in 2008, after the Boston archdiocese announced Holy Trinity would be among 65 parishes to close or merge in a massive diocesan restructuring. In spite of a campaign by the local community to keep the church open, including an appeal to the Vatican, Holy Trinity closed its doors permanently on June 30, 2008, and put the property up for sale in 2014.
Rendering of the Lucas
Snapped up shortly afterwards for $7 million by a construction firm, Holy Trinity is undergoing demolition in a $47-million project that will convert the historic church — now renamed “the Lucas” — into a series of luxury high-rise condos, some selling for as much as $4 million each. Construction should end in 2016, and half the units have already been sold.
The plan includes a future gym, a lounge with fireplace, and a wet bar. A courtyard with a fire pit and a gas grill will also be among the accoutrements. “Touchless commodes will be the norm,” the description reads, “and the baths will have large mirrors, some framed; some not, with overmounted strip lights.”
The South End has long been known as the city’s gay district, and the Lucas is said to be a favored project of the gay-friendly real estate community in the high-priced area. In a recent ad campaign, the building was used as a backdrop for trendy fashion designers in Boston, including those of ambiguous sexuality.
Proposed interior of the Lucas
Holy Trinity was announced by Cdl. Sean O’Malley in May 2004 as one of 65 churches to be shuttered or merged in the largest restructuring campaign in the Boston archdiocese’s history. “Although this reconfiguration responds to the very special needs of the present,” Cdl. O’Malley said, “a radical reconfiguration of the archdiocese has been discussed for many years. Changes in population, the movement of people from the cities to the suburbs, the decrease in the number of active Catholics have all contributed to the present predicament.”
Left out among the reasons for the “predicament” was the urgent need to finance the archdiocese’s sex abuse settlement made the year before: $85 million paid to 552 victims — at the time the largest payout by a U.S. diocese in the nation’s history.
Before the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of the homosexual priest sex abuse scandal, the archdiocese had been quietly settling cases with victims for years, who would receive a paltry sum in exchange for their silence. After the scandal broke in the national news, hundreds more victims stepped forward, suing the archdiocese and implicating a far greater number of priests than the Church had ever acknowledged (271 in Boston were ultimately accused). The archdiocese agreed to the settlement terms in 2003, and although considered an enormous sum at the time, that figure has since been eclipsed by three other settlements, all in California: $100 million paid by the archdiocese of Orange County; $200 million paid by the San Diego archdiocese; and a stunning $660 million paid to victims in the Los Angeles archdiocese.
Current demolition of Holy Trinity
At the time, the Boston archdiocese had admitted it was still figuring out ways to finance the settlement, including suing its insurers and “selling off surplus property.” It was the next year that Cdl. Sean O’Malley would announce the closure and merging of churches. Coupled with Cdl. Law’s closure of 40 church properties during his tenure, the size of the Boston archdiocese has shrunk dramatically over the course of less than three decades — from 404 in 1987 to only 292 now, a nearly 30-percent decline.
The stories of many of these parishes are much the same as Holy Trinity’s, which saw generations pass through their doors and worship within their walls, who were baptized, confirmed, married and buried in those same churches — churches whose sacred purposes have now given way to the profane, as the Church in Boston continues to struggle to find its footing in a spiritually and financially uncertain future.
Even so, the Boston Christmas tree will still twinkle with lights in Boston Common, just as the giant Rockefeller Center Christmas tree will glow some miles away in New York City, and so many thousands of others in homes throughout the nation this season — and all thanks to a historic church in the South End of Boston, whose faithful have long since dispersed, yet whose legacy continues — even as the church building is being gutted to make way for new tenants.