Kevin Cullen

Praying for a miracle

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 21, 2010

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Christmas is always a big deal in the North End, but this was going to be a special one for the folks who pray at St. Mary’s Chapel, tucked into the corner of the ground floor of Casa Maria Apartments on Endicott Street.

St. Mary’s has just one Mass a week, on Saturdays, and Christmas falls on a Saturday this year, and so there would be the bells of St. Mary’s this Christmas, even if was just the memory of the bells in St. Mary’s steeple, torn down 33 years ago. A lot of the older residents at Casa Maria remember those bells.

But St. Mary’s chapel closed, abruptly, a couple of months ago and it won’t be open for Christmas, if ever.

The Franciscan priests at St. Leonard’s Church on Hanover Street have been serving St. Mary’s since the Jesuits left more than a decade ago. But the Rev. Antonio Nardoianni, the pastor at St. Leonard’s, told the people at St. Mary’s that conflicts with the management of the apartment building and a shortage of priests forced him to end the weekly Mass.

Bea White, the property manager at Casa Maria, disputes the first part of Nardoianni’s explanation, and insists that no decision has been reached on the chapel. But she says she hasn’t been able to talk to Nardoianni about it because he hasn’t returned her calls.

I told her to get in line, because he hasn’t returned mine, either. And he wasn’t at the rectory the few times I went by in the last month.

This isn’t the first time the faithful of St. Mary’s have had their place of worship taken away from them. St. Mary’s Church was built in 1872, but the parish, the North End’s first, dates to the 1830s. When the church was razed in 1977 to make way for Casa Maria Apartments, parishioners were promised there would always be a chapel in the apartment building.

Three years ago, that promise was broken when the building’s managers announced that the 120-seat chapel would be converted into a function room. After that was reported in this space, Mayor Thomas M. Menino stepped in and said the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the building’s owners had worked out an agreement that ensured the chapel would remain in Casa Maria in perpetuity. The chapel’s size was cut in half, but at least it was still there, and it was full every Saturday afternoon.

If the mayor wants to keep the chapel open now, he might have to take up a late vocation.

Bea White thinks something can be worked out. She found out recently that the Rev. Claude Scrima, one of the priests at St. Leonard’s who sometimes says the Mass at St. Mary’s, is her cousin.

The people who pray at St. Mary’s seem resigned to their fate. In his statement to parishioners, Nardoianni suggested that the North End is “over-serviced’’ in terms of vigil Masses on Saturdays. He noted that there is one at St. Stephen’s Church at 4 p.m., and another at St. Leonard’s at 5:15 p.m.

It’s true that some of the people who went to the Saturday Mass at St. Mary’s can walk to St. Leonard’s and St. Stephen’s on the other side of the North End. It’s also true that a lot of them can’t.

St. Mary’s can’t catch a break. Mary Baldassarre was the chapel’s rock. She washed the altar linens. She cleaned the chapel. She arranged the altar, making sure everything was in place. Mary Baldassarre did everything but say the Mass. But she took a fall recently and, at 95, had to move out of the North End and in with some relatives in St. Louis.

It may have been a blessing in disguise, because however much it hurt when she fell, it would hurt Mary Baldassarre a lot more to see the lights off for good in St. Mary’s Chapel.

Another piece of the old North End, gone.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at