A Pilgrim’s Progress: The Mission Church

Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
The Altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

by David O'Neill



Pilgrim's Progress is a new feature highlighting sites of interest for Catholics in the Boston area. 


A few weekends ago, I found myself near Fenway with no plans. After making an unsuccessful trip to a very busy Isabella Steward Gardener Museum, I opened up Google Maps in an attempt to discover something else nearby—and I noticed how close I was to Mission Hill. The neighborhood is named for the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help­­, also known as The Mission Church. Seeing that they had Saturday Confessions (which I needed) and a vigil Mass, I made it my mission to set out towards the basilica.


Mission Hill is aptly named: the beautiful Romanesque church is located on a hilltop at the intersection of Tremont and St. Alphonsus Street. As I approached, I was struck by the beauty of the exterior. The present structure is built of Roxbury puddingstone taken from a quarry down the block when the church was built in the 1870s. Back then, the building was intended as a base for missionary priests who travelled to spread the Gospel throughout New England and Canada—but it quickly grew to be a mainstay of the Archdiocese of Boston.


From its beginning, the Mission Church has been administered by priests of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). The Redemptorists are especially devoted to Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help (O.L.P.H), giving the Mission Church its name. The basilica quickly grew due to the fervor of the priests­­ and an influx of Catholic immigrants, leading to the construction of the present church and its subsequent promotion to a full parish—and this only a few years after the Redemptorists came to Boston.


Walking towards the church, I was immediately struck by a stunning tympanum above the main door depicting O.L.P.H —an image of Mary and the infant Christ flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Her gaze beckons passersby to come and pray­­, and indeed, the Basilica is open from 8am until 6:30pm during the week. Before entering, I could see two spires, which are exactly as tall as the church is long­­—an impressive 215 feet. These 1910 additions make the church not only visible for miles around, but also audible, as the western tower boasts twelve bells. Between these lie a rose window, nearly invisible from inside the Church because of the towering organ­­—a model hailed by the Boston Globe as one of the “finest [musical instruments] in the world.”


Upon entering the nave of the church, the sense of the sacred in this monument to Our Lady is pervasive. Two levels of windows enlighten the whole church, giving it a certain airiness. The nave is marked by high vaults in the center, and lower vaults in the aisles, drawing the eyes along towards the apse and the altar. The circular dome shows Christ in the center surrounded by various scenes of healing­­—specifically, the healing of those who prayed through Our Lady of Perpetual Help.


At the north transept of the church stands the altar of O.L.P.H. At the time I went, dozens of lit devotional candles indicated the active devotional culture at the basilica. The apse behind the altar is painted gold to mirror the icon of Our Lady, which hangs above the altar. Each Wednesday of the year, prayers and hymns are sung to her here at services in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole­­, revealing the great diversity of the parish. The two pillars flanking the altar are filled with crutches­­, testifying to the historically documented healings of those who prayed the Novena to O.L.P.H. on nine consecutive Wednesdays at the church. A report by the City of Boston notes that between 1878 and 1884 alone, over 330 healings were recorded.


The church also features a beautiful purgatorial altar, the paintings on either side of which show angels carrying souls towards heavenly Jerusalem­­. Directly above, a mosaic of the Crucifixion reveals that the only way to the resurrection is the Cross. Beneath each of the three reredos, prayers for the souls in purgatory are written­­—reminding us of the need to pray for the dead.


Sitting in the church, you may also notice a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows­­ above the tabernacle, chosen because there was never a statue made of O.L.P.H. Above her, a carved replica of the dove from St. Peter’s Basilica reminds us of the presence of the Holy Spirit here, and of the universal nature of the Catholic Church.


Whether for the Wednesday Novena, Mass, Confession, prayer, or because the line at Isabella Stewart Gardner is unbearably long­­, make sure to take a pilgrimage to this beautiful basilica. More information can be found on the basilica's website. 


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