Did You Know

South Boston Today Guest Contributor Robert Allison



Did you know . . . that Patrick Keely, the architect who designed St. Augustine’s Church, was the foremost Catholic architect of the 19th-century?

rsz_patrick_c_keelyKeely was born in Kilkenny in 1816.  When he was 25, after studying architecture under his father, he emigrated to America, settled in Brooklyn, and became one of the most prolific church architects in his adopted country.  Keely designed sixteen cathedrals and over 700 churches, including the cathedrals in Chicago, Hartford, Providence, Brooklyn, and of course the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Keely’s churches were noted for being “preaching churches,” broad and open inside so that the congregation could see and hear the mass.  A master woodcarver, Keely did the altars, woodwork, and other ornamental pieces in many of his churches.

Note the woodwork about St. Augustine’s central doorway.  According to Edward Furey, the president of the Keely Society, this is the most “exuberant, decorative example” of Keely’s unique motif, which he used in all of his New England Cathedrals.   While you will see the same motif above the entryways at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, this work at St. Augustine’s is a more vivid example of Keely’s ability to bring life to the facades of his masterworks.

St. Augustine’s used to boast stained glass created by Franz Mayer of Munich.  The windows will be installed at the Cathedral, but their presence for nearly a century at St. Augustine’s indicates the importance the community placed on this church.  Keely’s churches, whether a cathedral in a major city or parish in Nova Scotia, Wisconsin, or a Boston neighborhood, were places of reflection, renewal, and rebirth.

rsz_62834506Keely is to the design of Catholic churches what Charles Bulfinch was for the design of Protestant churches. He created the model for worship in the 19th-century.  These are not great buildings because Keely was a great architect—Keely was a great architect because he created extraordinary buildings. His churches were primarily places of worship, but they were also gathering points for a community becoming part of American society.  The churches and cathedrals are bold statements of belonging in America, places where communities would gather in joy and in sorrow.  Keely designed it, as he did his other churches, as a gathering place for this community.  Walk up Dorchester Street and you are drawn to it; it is set back from the street to allow you to leave behind the everyday world and enter this special place.

Keely was recognized for his work not only with commissions for churches and cathedrals.  He was the second recipient, in 1884, of the Laetare Medal, conferred by the University of Notre Dame every year on a Catholic whose “genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”  Keely’s architectural and artistic work certainly did this. Subsequent recipients have included Dave Brubeck, Helen Hayes, Walker Percy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill, Chief Justice Edward D. White, and President John F. Kennedy.

images1Many of Keely’s churches are no more.  Some lost to fire, many more have been demolished.  We should take a close look at his remaining work before it is erased, and count ourselves fortunate to have been able to look upon it.  The builders of the 19th-century left these markers for us, and we can thank them.  How will future generations look back on the works we leave behind?


Robert Allison is president of the South Boston Historical Society.