A Non-Catholic's Guide to the Catholic Side of Boston

Get curious at these historic, holy and introspective sites, from shrines to churches to a tiny alley in Little Italy.

Sheer luck led to my first papal encounter back in 1999 when I was wrapping up a semester abroad in Europe on a grand backpacking tour through Italy.

On this particular day, I went to the Vatican to see Michelangelo's magnificent Sistine Chapel—btw, a very long wait to see a surprisingly tiny space—and afterward I ended up wandering through St. Peter's Square. As a college-aged, non-Catholic traveler I don't think I appreciated the sights and sounds filtering through my five-foot-high, 360-degree range of view as much as, say, a devout pilgrim.

Plus, it was not yet on my pop-culture radar. We were still a year away from Dan Brown publishing "Angels and Demons" and four years away from anybody reading his "The Da Vinci Code" predecessor.

St. Peter's Square was suddenly mobbed, and as my girlfriends and I were standing there, Pope John Paul appeared to receive the crowd. If my memory serves me, he was speaking in Italian, but the experience itself, to see the Pope—much like it would be to see the President, the Dalai Lama, or any other world leader—was uncommon and wonderful.

As we turned to leave, the Popemobile coasted immediately in front of us, and I'm pretty sure we made eye contact. Anyway, Catholic or not, that experience is one I'll cherish.

Last month, I made a quick trip to Philadelphia for business and found the city already buzzing with anticipation at Pope Francis' upcoming American visit Sept. 22-27, during which he will stop over in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

While Boston didn't make his official itinerary this time around, travelers tripping through this city can check out a variety of interesting Catholic-centric local sites that also happen to be historic, interesting and totally worth a visit. To guide you on your way, I've put together a day's plan to follow in its entirety or to simply sample.

A Morning at the Sites

In the Orient Heights section of East Boston, the Don Orione Fathers operate the Madonna Queen of the Universe Shrine. Because of its glinting, 35-foot copper and bronze statue of the Holy Mother perched high up on a hill, you can see this site from quite a distance around.

The Madonna is a replica of one created for the Fathers in Rome by Italian sculptor Arrigo Minerbi. Venture inside the adjacent shrine, to see mosaics, stained glass windows and murals that create an amazing place for soul searching. Masses are in English and Spanish. Tu-Su 7:30 am-6:30 pm.
150 Orient Ave., East Boston, Mass., 617.569.8792

Madonna of the Universe Shrine and statue of the Holy Mother (©Denis Tangney Jr./iStock)

Mid-Morning in Little-Italy

From East Boston, head across Boston Harbor (or rather under it, if you're riding the MBTA's Blue Line) to the North End. This neighborhood, rife with Italian culture for more than a century, shows signs of Catholicism at every turn.

The North End's lively summer Italian saints feasts and processions take place every weekend, from simple afternoon affairs to major festivals like the Fisherman's Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca (Aug. 13-16) or St. Anthony's Feast (Aug. 28-30).

One of my all-time favorite spots in the city and a fascinating hidden gem is All Saints Way, a tiny alley off of Battery Street curated and cared for by Peter Baldassari. He has affixed hundreds of images, figurines and tokens of saints in this impromptu shrine-like space. This is private property, but when the door to the alley is open, do venture in and look up to the heavens.
North End, Boston, Mass.

All Saints Way in the North End (©Anna Hanks/Creative Commons license Flickr)

Late Morning Reverance

The gorgeous Gothic-revival Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End is not only the head church of Boston’s Archdiocese, but it is an architectural wonder.

A bird’s-eye view shows off the cathedral’s cross formation, designed by architect Patrick Keely—who notably built over 600 churches in his lifetime. The building, made using Roxbury puddingstone, is open to the public, and attractions of note include the 1875 Hook & Hastings pipe organ.

No guided tours, but if you’ve got a question visit the gift shop W-F 10 am-1 pm and ask for Brian.
1400 Washington St., Boston, Mass., 617.542.5682

Inside the South End's Cathedral of the Holy Cross (©Bill Damon/Creative Commons license Flickr)

Midday Mass at St. Paul's

Cab it to Cambridge in time for midday mass. In the heart of Harvard Square, St. Paul’s Church is Romanesque in design and absolutely gorgeous in the flesh. Every facet of its sanctuary is highly symbolic; visitors can tour the chapel approximately 30 minutes before or after a daily mass (which are open to the public), or there is a comprehensive description of it here.

St. Paul's also operates the country's only Catholic boys' choir school, and its highly acclaimed St. Paul's Boys Choir performs mass Tuesday through Friday at 8 am and 12:10 pm, at Vespers on Wednesday at 5:15 pm and Saturday at 5 pm. The full choir of St. Paul's includes professional adult male altos, tenors and basses and sings Sunday at 11 am.
29 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, Mass., 617.491.8400

Mid-Afternoon Traipsing

Hit the Freedom Trail for this next stop: King’s Chapel. One might gather from its name that this church remained Loyalist during the Revolutionary Era, and today it follows a Christian Unitarian tradition.

Interestingly, King’s Chapel is recognized as the site of the first Roman Catholic mass in America, held for the French Chevalier de Saint-Sauveur, who died during a street riot and was buried in the middle of the night in a stranger’s tomb in the church’s crypt in 1778. Take a Bell & Bones Tour to hear the full account.

58 Tremont St., Boston, Mass., 617.523.1749

King's Chapel in downtown Boston (©holbox/ShutterStock)

Late Afternoon at the Shops and Stops

The Shops at Prudential Center is Boston's go-to mainstream mall, in the heart of the Back Bay.

Between visits to Saks and Sephora, stop in at the landmark's St. Francis Chapel, a modern sanctuary run by Oblates of the Virgin Mary that is tucked into the Hynes Court wing. St. Francis' boasts a stellar bookstore stocked with Bibles, rosaries, statues, First Communion sets and more, and it is open daily. 
800 Boylston St., Boston, Mass., 617.437.7117

Evening Musings

Walk to dinner or back to your hotel through Boston Common. Its central walking path begins at Charles Street South and it is here that you may notice a tombstone-sized memorial dedicated to Pope John Paul II.

The granite tablet sculpture made by artist Frank Gaylord commemorates the first visit of a Pope to Boston as well as Pope John Paul's first given mass in the United States, which happened on site in October of 1979.
Boston Common at Charles Street South between Boylston and Beacon streets, Boston, Mass.

I'll leave you with this.

Pope John Paul at the Vatican in Rome on May 4, 1999 (©Leigh Harrington)