Foxboro Catholics: Perserverance & Rebuilding the Faith 1872-1879
The year 1872 realized two important events for the Foxboro Catholic community. The congregation purchased land for a cemetery and the arrival of Fr. Francis Gouesse as pastor.
On July 12, 1872 Abraham H. Drake deeded four acres of land on Mechanic Street to the "Catholic Burial Association" of Foxboro in consideration of four hundred dollars. This association was a group of Catholic men whose names appear on the deed. The names included; Patrick O'Brien, Charles Rafferty, Thomas Tiernay, John Welch, Ned O'Neil, Patrick White, Charles Fay, William Clark, and Thomas Carpenter. The property was purchased with money by subscriptions. Prior to this time Foxboro Catholics were buried in the Catholic cemetery located in Canton.
In September, the Dedham Transcript reported, "Surveyors have been at work this week at the southerly corner of Mechanic and Chestnut Streets generally known as 'the four corners'. Surveyors have bee at work this week and the plot has been staked off in suitable lots and paths. It is probable that there will be but a short time elapse before the work is completed."
On October 7, 1874, the Catholic Association deeded the cemetery to Bishop John J. Williams in consideration of ten dollars. The transfer was witnessed by a different group of men from the association including; William Igoe, Daniel Welsh, Dennis McCarthy, Thomas White, Timothy McCarthy, John Scully, William Curtin, David Kersey, Patrick Proctor, Thomas Rafferty, and William Regan.
In 1872 the Diocese of Providence was created from the Diocese of Boston. The new diocese included not only the whole state of Rhode Island, but the Massachusetts' counties of Bristol, Barnstable, Dukes, Nantucket and Plymouth. Since Fr. Gillick’s parish was situated in North Attleboro, located in Bristol County, the care of the Foxboro mission was assigned to a new priest. On November 11, the mission stations of Franklin, Wrentham, Foxboro, and Walpole were assigned to Fr. Francis Gouesse who took up residence in Cocasset House in Foxboro.
Father Francis Gouesse was born in Laval France in 1817, and ordained in 1845 in New Orleans. After several years' service here, he volunteered for the frontier missions of Michigan and Indiana. Later he worked in New York until ill health forced him to return to France for a brief period of rest. In 1869, at the age of 52, he came to Massachusetts to relieve the pastors of several parishes, especially those of Southbridge and Randolph. In Marlboro he organized a flourishing French Canadian parish and built a church. Almost immediately upon the completion of this came his assignment to Foxboro where Father Gillick had begun the construction of a new church. It then fell to Father Gouesse to complete the church.
In a letter dated February 25, 1873, to Bishop John J. Williams, little more than three months into his new assignment, Fr. Gouesse described the conditions of the faith in Foxboro at this time. "My Lord, Saturday last I tried hard to reach Franklin, and when three miles of that place I was obliged to turn back. Sunday morning, tried again and this time worse than before. We could not travel but three and half miles. Felt bad, very bad, having not as yet disappointed any one of any people... As to Foxboro, cannot say much about it. They have a church that is no church. You would hardly believe is to be possible to say Mass in such a place, during such a Winter. And still, we had it regularly every other Sunday. On that church $950 dollars debt. Nothing for the Divine Service. About 55 families and 12 Turn Coats. The burning of their church and the loss of the insurance money is as fresh in their minds, after 11 years, as if it happened yesterday. They are a demoralized people. No account about anything was ever given them. Even about their present church, they do not know anything. Money was collected for it, and was never heard of it. There must have been some terrible times over here. They make me feel bad, very bad, but they do not take me by surprise, knowing for a long time too how things go in too many places. Will try hard to do what I can for them, you may rely on it. For the present, everything looks gloomy, very gloomy indeed, and every where too. I will try to do something out here, in my opinion they deserve it."
In August, describing the summer plans of resident ministers in town, the Mansfield News reported, "Reverend Father Gouesse, of the Catholic church in Foxboro, does not appear to be blessed with such a revivifer as a vacation - he is the Pastor over four different churches and holds services in Foxboro upon alternate Sundays."
In October, the Foxboro Times reported, "The Sacrament of First Communion was administered to the students of the Foxboro Sunday School. As a sign appreciation, one of the students, Master Willie Heath, presented Fr. Gouesse with a double German students lamp and ink stand. In return Fr. Gouesse commended Mrs. Mary Kirwin and Mrs. Mary Ann Heath for their work with the children." Fr. Gouesse’s ecumenical spirit was described in the article, "Many Protestants who never before entered a Catholic church were present or spectators to the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation to a number of adults and youths."
In his 1873 annual report Fr. Gouesse described to the bishop the local conditions of the Catholic faith. "Catechism in Foxboro, Franklin, and Walpole, average attendance about 50-70. Two Altar Societies in Franklin and Foxboro. Churches everywhere, Walpole and Wrentham excepted. The whole of the above my doing. There are no mortgages on any of the buildings and there is no parochial house anywhere. One cemetery in Franklin. No other real estate belonging to the Church, save in Foxboro, a piece of land for a cemetery, unencumbered, but of no profit. The Foxboro Church is insured for $3,000 There are no pew rents. Therefore I make my living well by hard working the midst of very good people."
The consecration of the Catholic cemetery took place in October 1874. The Foxboro Times. Reported, "Yesterday will be remembered long by the Catholics as the day when, by notion of their Church, their new cemetery became holy ground....The plot was improved on as time and means would allow....a substantial fence and a large and well-built receiving tomb, along with walks and avenues being prepared. A large wooden cross was raised in the center. The consecration services principally took place at the foot of the cross, and were conducted by Rt. Reverend Bishop Williams assisted by Reverend Father Sheridan of Taunton, and Fr. Francis Gouesse. The ritualistic services were entirely in Latin. The Bishop wore the biretta and stole, commencing with the Litany of Saints, the assistants making the responses....At the close of this part of the ceremonies the Bishop, with assistants, perambulated the grounds, sprinkling them with holy water and upon his return the exercise closed with prayers."
The Bishop credited the parishioners, "for their successful efforts procuring a place for their dead. Their bodies would lay until Christ should come with his cross borne before him, calling the quick and dead to judgement, and they should so live as to meet those friends in the Father's kingdom...This is holy ground, God's acre to pray for themselves and for the souls of their friends there buried. The ground is your charge to watch over and protect. It is for the burial of those who die in the faith and none others and you should in no way desecrate it yourselves or allow it to be desecrated by others."
A side bar of historical interest. A December 18, 1874 editorial in the Foxboro Journal revealed the Yankee bias to the local celebration of Christmas. "The teachers and pupils of the public schools will not have Christmas week for play. A vacation now would be a great loss to the children who are just getting under way. Having two weeks between the terms at Thanksgiving, we think it far better than so many holidays."
On February 12, 1875, Boston was raised to an archdiocese, and Bishop John J. Williams was elevated to an archbishop. In a region where scarcely thirty years before there had been but 68,000 Catholics, one bishop, and a score of priests and churches, there were now an archbishop, five suffragan bishops, over four hundred priests and churches, and about 863,000 Catholics.
The 1876 Norfolk County Manual nicely summarizes the status of the Foxboro Catholic congregation at this time, "St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church. Organized in 1872 - Pastor, Rev. Francis Gouesse, settled November 17, 1872. Number of members, 250. Superintendent of Sunday School , Mary Kirwin; two teachers, twenty-five students. Also pastor at St. Patrick’s in Franklin, organized 1872. Settled November 17, 1872; 500 members. One building worth $2,500 and land valued at $400. "
As mentioned earlier, in 1873 the Foxboro Catholic community had begun constructing a new church building. For a variety of reasons the construction proceeded very slowly and four years later, in 1877, the building was still unfinished. In July, the Mansfield Times reported that a meeting of the members of the Catholic church was held for the purpose of forming an organization which was intended to, "more thoroughly unite the people as to the best manner of conducting their financial affairs."
In September another meeting was held attended by the entire congregation. It was a meeting to plan and pray for God’s guidance to secure the resources necessary to complete the building of their church. Two days later the church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
The Mansfield News reported on the conflagration. "During the shower which occurred on Monday last, the Catholic Church in Foxboro was struck by lightning and, owing in part to its unfinished state, it being built of wood and unplastered, was within the space of half an hour entirely consumed. Our Catholic friends seem to be particularly unfortunate with reference to their church matters. In 1862 their church building was destroyed under circumstances which caused many to think the fire of incendiary origin. This time, however, there is no question as to the cause of the conflagration, as the bolt was seen to strike the building by several persons..." The article inferred that the were some doubts to the status of the insurance policy, but it was determined that the Fr. Gouesse had in fact taken out a policy to the amount of $3,000.
In April, 1878 the Mansfield News reported, "Early in the spring the Foxboro Catholics began the rebuilding of their church on the original location. It is to be rather smaller than were either of the two previous ones, as it is to be 32 feet wide, 53 feet long, having a capacity to seat 300 worshipers. The cost, without furniture is estimated at $2,000."
In August, The Mansfield News reported, "The Catholic Church is completed and looks neat and substantial. The society has shown an abundance of perseverance in erecting a third edifice and we hope they may be permitted to enjoy the privileges offered in the present structure many years." The article mentioned that the church, "will not be formally dedicated at present, if at all, although Mass will be celebrated there for the first time next Sunday forenoon at 8 o'clock prompt. Rev. Fr. Griffin of Franklin, who has been assigned to this place temporarily, will be celebrant."
Throughout 1878, the demands of caring for four parishes began to task the health of Fr. Gouesse. He implored upon the archbishop to give the mission of Foxboro to another priest. In February 1879, Foxboro became a mission of the new Catholic church in Franklin under the care of Rev. James Griffin.