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A sláinte to Bellingham’s Irish Catholics

Saint Brendan’s Catholic Church, 1940s, photo used courtesy of Steve Joanis, Bellingham Historical Commission

By Ashley Kazijian
With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, many of us are getting ready to head to a nearby pub for a green colored beer or Guinness, or to the dinner table for a homemade boiled dinner of corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes. Regardless of ancestry, these cultural celebrations are widely practiced and enjoyed, especially in Boston. But, like many other holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is deeply rooted in religious significance. Held annually on March 17th, (the death date of Saint Patrick- the patron saint of Ireland), the holiday commemorates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. 
Hopping back across the pond to Massachusetts- home to many Irish folks; many being descendants of Irish immigrants who came over during the famine. The Irish saturated Massachusetts with their beloved culture and their commitment to faith. While most of us are familiar with the cultural aspect, you might be wondering how the Irish impacted the practice of Catholicism in our little town? 

Bellingham is home to two Catholic parishes: Saint Blaise Catholic Church and Saint Brendan Catholic Church. Steve Joanis, Vice Chair of the Bellingham Historical Commission, is a lifelong Saint Brendan’s parishioner and local historian. His extensive research focuses on the history of Saint Brendan’s, but also highlights the slow acceptance of Catholicism in Massachusetts and the challenges faced by early local Catholics. 


Catholicism was not widely accepted in Massachusetts until after the American Revolution, according to Joanis. According to his research, there were about 100 Catholics in Boston in 1778 and this number increased to over 7,000 by 1829. Throughout the 1800s, the number of Catholics in Boston continuously increased as did the diocese and number of Catholic Churches in response. The Irish famine (1848-49) led to an influx of Irish immigrants in Massachusetts, with jobs and railroads bringing many new Irish Catholics to the Milford area. Because the famine resulted in so many Irish Catholics in the area, the number of Catholic parishioners largely increased, creating more of a need for places of worship. Since there was no parish in Bellingham until 1895, Catholics would travel to surrounding towns to practice their faith (this included traveling for weddings and baptisms). According to Joanis, the Bellingham Irish Catholics would gather and pray for a parish of their own on a hill that later became the location for Saint Brendan’s Catholic Church. On September 8th, 1895, Bellingham was finally blessed with its very own Catholic parish. 
So, if you’re taking part in any cultural celebrations this St. Patrick’s Day, or if you’re a member of the local Catholic community, raise a green beer or Guinness to sláinte (“cheers” in Irish) the Irish immigrants that brought with them many things our community continues to enjoy and cherish
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