When it opened on September 18, 1884, Saint John’s Seminary was served by a small, temporary chapel located where Saint John’s Chapel now stands. Construction on the permanent building began in 1899. The construction firm of Maginnis and Walsh first thought to continue the French provincial style of Theology House, as Saint John’s Hall was then known, but they eventually chose a Romanesque style, which was enjoying a small renaissance in Victorian Boston. Today the chapel merits recognition as one of Boston’s landmark religious edifices. Saint John’s Chapel served as the crowning piece of Archbishop John Williams’ efforts to provide Boston with a setting where Roman Catholic priests would develop a life centered on the Eucharist.
The altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Regina Cleri, Queen of the Clergy, stands in the narthex, or entryway, of the chapel. For more than a century, seminarians have passed before her altar on their way to Mass and the liturgy of the hours.
What first strikes the visitor upon entering the chapel is its ornate decoration. The style is that of the Italian Renaissance, and includes reference to Victorian patterns.
The interior decoration of the chapel was confided to an Italian Master, Gonippo Raggi (1875-1959), who had come to the United States in 1904. He received commissions throughout the eastern United States, including the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. The centerpiece of the Saint John’s Chapel motif is found in a mural, “Archbishop Williams presenting the Seminary to Saint John the Evangelist, who presents it to Christ”. The captivating image of the seminary founder expresses the overall theological motif of mediation: Christ, the Apostles, their successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church, and the Seven Sacraments, with special attention paid to the sacrament for which the seminary exists, Holy Orders.
The Apostles appear three times in the chapel. We first find the twelve on the walls that separate the stained-glass windows (with the addition of Saint William to account for the odd thirteenth panel). These representations are based on the statues of the Apostles that were placed in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome, at the end of the 19th century. Second, the Apostles (with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle) appear in the apse mural. This motif recalls the account given of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. Lastly, the Apostles appear symbolically in the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse (see Revelation 4:4) who are gathered around the Lamb who was slain. Diocesan priests at once are reminded of the importance of their own bishop who links them immediately to the Bishop of Rome and of the Eucharistic sacrifice which they enjoy the privilege of celebrating each day for the members of the church on earth and in purgatory.
The windows of the apse exhibit in Tiffany glass the coats-of-arms of two popes of the 20th century and the first five bishops of Boston. Each of the seven windows also contains a symbol of one of the seven sacraments. For more than a century, priests trained at Saint John’s Seminary have contemplated three mysteries as they returned to the chapel several times during the course of a day: The Eucharist, the six other sacraments, especially Holy Orders, and the Apostolic Succession which guarantees the authenticity of these instruments of salvation and of the Gospel that Catholic priests preach. In other words, they pondered their vocations as ministers of Word and Sacrament. Today about 100 young men preparing for the priesthood follow this same meditation.
During the renovation that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the chapel, the images of the Doctors of the Church located in the apse were restored. They had been removed in the early decades of the 20th century – so there was no living memory of them, only photographs. Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great watch down from the left, and Saints Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius, and Basil the Great do so from the right. The message their images communicated is clear. In seminaries, these holy men (and today holy women, including Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) serve a special purpose. They remind seminarians that the priest brings a message that is not his own. Rather the priest is charged to announce the Word of God in conformity with the truth of Catholic and divine faith.
Sacred music has long been a central feature of the liturgical celebrations at Saint John’s Seminary. Our Hook & Hastings pipe organ awaits adequate donations to restore it to its full voice. The chapel regularly welcomes guests for Sunday and other special liturgies, especially during Holy Week. The annual Festival of Lessons & Carols takes place the first weekend of December, much to the delight of the public who attend.
Photos by George Martell