Cardinal’s Residence/McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Brighton

During the 1920s, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, under the leadership of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, a man known for his highly elitist ways, moved its seat of power from the South End to a semi-suburban area of Brighton. Following Boston College’s relocation to Chestnut Hill—an affluent “village” comprised of parts of Boston, Brookline, and Newton—O’Connell set up shop at the intersection of Lake Street and Commonwealth Avenue, across from the BC campus, on the land of St. John’s Seminary.*

Cardinal O’Connell and Governor Cox at Charlestown Navy Yard, circa 1920-1929. Photo by Leslie Jones. Source: Leslie Jones Collection, Arts Department, Boston Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth.

The cardinal’s residence, a three-story, ornate and opulent Italian Renaissance-style palazzo—one financed to a large degree from a bequest from the family of Benjamin F. Keith, a vaudeville magnate—was the centerpiece of the Archdiocese’s “Little Rome.” According to David Quigley, a historian at Boston College, the residence was “a visible symbol of the imperial archdiocese in the early 20th century, and then, during the very difficult years in 2002 and 2003 [referring to the revelations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy], it was a site of daily protest and picketing.”

In 2004, the Archdiocese, in dire need of funds to pay restitution to the victims of the sexual abuse, agreed to sell to Boston College 43 acres of land and numerous buildings, including the cardinal’s residence, for $99.4 million. Three years later, it sold another 20 acres and three additional buildings, one of which was the chancery, the headquarters of the Archdiocese (today the home of Boston College’s alumni center), for $65 million.

The current cardinal lives in a modest rectory attached to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.* Meanwhile, the offices of the Archdiocese are now located in Braintree, a South Shore town that has one of the Boston area’s greatest concentrations of residents of Irish descent. The move mimics the migration of many “old” Boston Catholics (those of Irish and Italian descent) to the suburbs. It also reflects a marked decrease in the Church’s political influence in the City of Boston in recent decades. As for the former home of all the Archdiocese of Boston’s cardinals in the 20th century, it is today Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.

McMullen Museum of Art, former cardinal’s residence of the Archdiocese of Boston, June 2017. Photo by Joseph Nevins.

Getting there:

Green Line, B Branch, to Boston College station.

To learn more:

Thomas H. O’Connor, Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Michael Paulson, “Seat of Boston’s Catholic Power Gives Way to Other Pursuits,” The New York Times, January 2, 2015.

Christine Williams, “Archdiocese Sells Brighton Campus to BC,”, May 24, 2007.

*There are entries on St. John’s Seminary and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

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