Foxboro Catholics 1844-1858 Saddlebag Masses & Horseback Priests
The earliest record of Mass being celebrated in Foxboro was on November 30, 1844. It was on this date, that a missionary Catholic priest married Michael Rafferty and Mary Lyons. Michael was an iron and brass molder, and both he and Mary were born in Ireland. Mary was the daughter of James and Mary Lyons. James Lyons is remembered as one of the first two Catholic families who bought land and settled in Foxboro.
An interesting side bar of historical note. James, who died on February 14, 1846, and Mary are buried along side each other in St. Augustine’s Cemetery in South Boston, the first Catholic cemetery in Boston, establish in 1818.
Throughout the rural towns where the Catholic Irish settled,, the Catholic Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, Marriage, Confession and Last Rites were celebrated by missionary priests on horseback. Between the years 1831 and 1850 these rites almost always occurred in homes. Prior to the late 1840s Irish Potato famine migration, the few Catholic families in rural Massachusetts times were widely scattered.
What was it like to be Catholic in Foxboro with no church and dependent on the infrequent, once or twice a year visit of a missionary priest?. First of all the visit of the priest would have been announced ahead of time in order that all the Catholic families had an opportunity to be present for whatever spiritual needs or Sacraments that required a priest. Newborns would be presented to receive baptism, betroth couples came to be married, and the sick to be comforted by the prayers of the priest.
The usual procedure, when the priest came, would be first a hot supper. After the meal it was common for the men to gather with the priest for a smoke and conversation. As the evening progressed a room would be cleared for the priest to hear confessions in preparation to receive communion the following morning. During the evening the parlor would be prepared for the Mass on the following morning. The makeshift altar, usually a simple wooden table, would be arranged with great care, decked with the finest linens and laces brought from Ireland. These precious items were usually carefully stored in the large sea-chest, in which they would be folded and replaced after the service, for the next occasion. Also the rules of fasting, nothing to eat or drink were in effect after midnight. Not a morsel of food nor taste of water before the reception of the Eucharist. This fact was the principal reason for Mass being celebrated between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. The missionary priest would take from the saddlebag his leather traveling Mass kit from which came the paten, chalice, stole, a purificator, crucifix, candles, a pyx and reliquary, a rosary, wine and water cruets, and an oil supply. After Mass a hearty breakfast would be served and time allowed time for religious instruction, marriage preparation, and any other matter that may require the attention of the priest.
During this era, the few Catholic households in Foxboro were headed by Irish-born laborers. In addition to the foundry, other industries that employed Irish Catholic laborers were the straw hat manufactory, the steam mill on Gilmore Street, a dye house on Cocasset Street, the tin and sheet iron works in the basement of Friendship Block on the corner of Granite and Main Streets, and the paste board factory on Baker Street. During these years Foxboro witnessed a transformation of the labor work force, as immigrant workers came to replace the native born in virtually every production task, and as the Irish Catholic population increased the demand for resident priests and the construction of churches followed suit.
In 1851 a parish was created in Canton under the care of Reverend Michael O'Laughlin.with instructions to provide for the mission stations in Easton, Stoughton, and Foxboro. Soon after, in 1853 the Easton mission was separated from Canton and Fr. Aaron Roche was placed in charge with mission stations Bridgewater, Mansfield, Wrentham and Foxboro. At this time, Mass was celebrated in the home of Richard Gorman (116 Central Street) until growing numbers required the Catholics rent larger meeting rooms, including the Odd Fellows Lodge, the Cocasset House, and eventually the new Town Hall.
Finally, on May 2, 1859 Bishop John Fitzpatrick designated the Foxboro Catholic community a parish under the spiritual care of Fr. Michael X. Carroll. The new Foxboro parish included the Catholics residing in Mansfield, South Walpole, Franklin, Wrentham Center; North Wrentham (Norfolk) and the "Furnace" area of south Easton.