Friday, September 25, 2009

The Empire Has Passed, The Church Remains

While it's been five years since the archdiocese of Boston vacated most of its "Little Rome" after selling the 65-acre Brighton compound to Boston College for $172 million, one condition of the deal is still to be executed: the exhumation of the city's first cardinal, the grandiose native son William Henry O'Connell, from his chapel-mausoleum (above) overlooking St John's Seminary, the lone archdiocesan property remaining on the estate that likewise housed its administrative offices and Archbishop's Residence for nearly a century.

But after years of talk involving the Chancery, the College and O'Connell's clan, the departure of "Number One" finally appears at hand after the Boston church -- now headquartered in a suburban office park -- submitted a joint filing with the BC board late last week, petitioning a state court to green-light the removal of the cardinal's remains and their transfer to St Sebastian's, a boys' day school founded by the prelate, who served as Boston's archbishop for 37 years, from 1907 until his 1944 death at age 84.

Lest the more triumphalistic among us be moved to weep, wail, fume, etc., it's worth noting that the once-stately monument has fallen into disrepair over recent decades; the chapel's front windows are speckled with what appear to be bullet-holes, the surrounding carved statues have deteriorated, and local lore says that the site was once a popular venue for "Black Masses" conducted by intruders in the night.

BC's plans for the site call for the construction of a parking garage near the tomb's hilltop perch.

As O'Connell biographer Jim O'Toole once noted, whenever it happens, the exhumation promises to be "a major production" -- at the cardinal's internment, a horde of cement trucks were on hand to seal the burial niche in the chapel's floor, the bronze coffin said to be 15ft underneath.

Given the selection of the school site, it's worth noting that Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross contains a crypt beneath its high altar for the deceased ordinaries; O'Connell opted not to use it, and each of his successors have followed suit. Among the nation's traditional cardinalatial sees, only Chicago and Detroit lack cathedral burial-space for their prior holders; while a crypt was initially planned for Houston's recently-dedicated Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the proposal was scrapped due to budgetary considerations.

Long in disrepair, the Boston crypt was recently renovated. Only three of its nine niches are filled.

And in one last strange coda to it all, a great-grandnephew of O'Connell's, former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Kirk, was named yesterday to temporarily fill the Senate seat vacated by last month's death of Ted Kennedy.

An alum of the school where his illustrious forbear's body is slated to move, the Senator-designate is said to have a record of support for abortion rights in defiance of church teaching.