When the Oblates of Mary Immaculate first came to Lowell in April, 1868, the city of Lowell was only thirty-two years old, having been chartered as a city in 1836. The population of the city was approximately 32,000, of whom 12,000 or so were Catholics. Of these Catholics, 2,500 were French Canadians. After the United States Civil War, there was a great exodus from Canadian farms to New England factories. The Irish had come in great numbers to the United States earlier, before the Civil War. They came to escape the terrible potato famine which reached major proportions in 1845. The Irish settled principally in the cities of the Northeast, including Lowell.
The Oblates came to Lowell from Canada at the invitation of Bishop John Williams of Boston. At that time there were two parishes in Lowell, popularly referred to as the “Irish” parishes, St Patrick’s and St Peter’s. The bishop suggested that the Oblates persuaded the bishop to allow them to work with English-speaking Catholics as well and to preach parish missions in the diocese. Thus the Oblates were given a mandate to work with the French-Canadians on a city-wide basis and also to work with other Catholics, particularly those who attended Mass at the public chapel built on the grounds of St John’s Hospital. The bishop promised that after three or four years the hospital chapel would be made into an English-speaking parish in the charge of the Oblates. This chapel had a seating capacity of nearly four hundred.
In 1868 Father Candidus Lagier, OMI, was placed in charge of the St John’s Hospital Chapel–and this in a way marks the beginning of the Parish of the Immaculate Conception. The Oblates later purchased this chapel, in the summer of 1869, and then proceeded to add two wings, increasing the capacity to 800.
An unused Protestant church on Lee Street, the present St Joseph’s Shrine in downtown Lowell, was also purchased in 1869 for the use of the French-Canadian Catholics, and this became the Parish of St Joseph.
The first Oblates who came to Lowell lived at St John’s Hospital until September, 1868, when they rented a house on High Street Square, the present Fayette Street.
In 1869 the Oblates purchased some property close to St John’s Hospital. More land was purchased in 1871 from the Massachusetts Cotton Mills. Now that the Oblates had acquired sufficient property, the building of a new and larger church could proceed. Excavation for the new Immaculate Conception Church began in April, 1871. Bishop Williams blessed the cornerstone of the new basement church on November 30, 1871. By the summer of 1872, the crypt was completed and then blessed the bishop of Boston on July 7th. The cost of the lower church was $45,000 and it was debt free at the time of the blessing. It had a seating capacity of 1,900.
With the completion of the lower church, work on the upper church was able to begin. On June 2, 1877, five years after the crypt was finished, the newly-constructed upper church was open for services; and on June 10th Archbishop Williams of Boston dedicated it.
The day following the dedication of the new church, the Lowell Times gave the occasion considerable coverage. The closing paragraph read as follows:
The Oblate Fathers…have made a number of friends in the city of Lowell. The courage and energy with which they have undertaken and completed the erection of one of the most beautiful churches in the country, merits the loudest of praise.
Some years later, His Eminence, William Cardinal O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, described the Immaculate Conception Church as “an illustration of art, poetry, architecture, and music all combined.”
In 1883 new parish lines were drawn up, diminishing the area making up the Immaculate Conception Parish. These are the lines designated by the diocesan authorities at the time: on the north by the Merrimack and Concord rivers, on the west by the Concord River, and on the south and east by the city limits. North Tewksbury was considered part of our parish until October 1961, when His Eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing, established the Parish of St Robert Bellarmine in Andover.
Another important happening took place in the year 1883, something especially affecting Oblates in the area. A new Oblate American Province was formed separate from Canada. Father James McGrath was named the first provincial superior.
In 1887 the Oblates who had been caring for St Joseph’s Parish on Lee Street, the French parish, and who were living at the Immaculate Conception Rectory, moved to new quarters nearer their work.
Another important event during the early days of the parish was the purchase in 1892 of a large piece of land in front of the church. This area was laid out as a kind of park and became one of the show places of the city of Lowell.
The present rectory and our previous convent were built during he pastorate of Father William Joyce, OMI. Father Joyce served as pastor from 1887 to 1901.
Information on the construction of the church and its subsequent renovations is available. By the early 1970s the number of Spanish-speaking Catholics in Lowell had grown considerably. Many of these settled in the Immaculate Conception Parish. Oblate priests and brothers, Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart and School Sisters of Notre Dame, as well as many lay people, worked together in behalf of the Spanish-speaking community. UNITAS, a social, cultural, land religious organization, grew out of a mutual concern between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members of the Immaculate Conception Parish. In 1974 the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Immaculate Conception came from Spain to work with Oblates and others in the Spanish apostolate here in Lowell.
In 1974 the Archdiocese of Boston asked the Oblates to take on added responsibilities for the Hispanic ministry in Lowell at Neuva Esperanza in the Sacred Heart Parish. Another outgrowth of the work started with the Hispanic community by Oblates in Lowell is the Spanish Center on Moody Street which was set up in 1981. This is a cooperative venture sponsored by Oblates from two different provinces, from the Eastern American Province and the Franco-American Province. (The Franco-American Province was established in 1921.) Up until 1994, when they moved to their own parish, the Hispanic community used the lower Church, the halls and the school facilities for worship, for education and for socials. By the 1990s some 700 Catholic Hispanics worshiped at the Immaculate Conception.
In 1976 the crypt of our Immaculate Conception Church was divided into a chapel comprising approximately one-third of the original area of the lower Church. The lovely chapel seats about 500. This is quite adequate for the numbers using it for daily Mass and up to the 1990s for the Spanish-speaking community using it on Sundays.
This concludes our very brief historical account about the Immaculate Conception Parish, its early years, its growth and development. In this history we talked for the most part about things, about buildings, about property. We did not talk much about people, about their faith and devotion, about their love for Christ and others, which certainly was, and is, in evidence, about the good they did for others, the poor, the young, the old, the lonely, the stranger to our land. Neither did we say much about the people who actually built the Immaculate; and we said very little about the wonderful people who now support and maintain it in so many, many different and vital ways. So very much more has to be said. But such an account, such a story would take more time and space than we have–and how could we ever really do it justice. For now at least, let the beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception, still one of the most beautiful and impressive churches in the country, stand as testimony to the great achievements and continuing goodness of the people who call the Immaculate Conception their parish.