St. Stephen’s Church: A sacred Kennedy institution

St. Stephen's Church, in Boston's North End.
St. Stephen’s Church, in Boston’s North End.

BOSTON — St. Stephen’s church, a white-trimmed brick building in the heart of Boston’s North End, is quiet for a Sunday afternoon. The morning Eucharist began at 10:30 a.m., and the congregation has dispersed by 1 p.m. Tourists stroll past the doors and notice, among the many plaques the line the brick walls of the entrance, a small metal plate in the corner. It reads:

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

July 22, 1890 – January 22, 1995

(…)

“… the most important element in human life is faith.” Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

In Memory of Our Founder – Ace of Clubs

                “Oh, Rose Kennedy was baptized here!” One after another murmurs. The fellow tourists nod, and they wander into the Paul Revere Mall across Hanover Street, following the red bricks of the Freedom Trail to the grandiose Old North Church.

Inside, the church is empty. Hymns play from small white speakers mounted on the columns that neighbor long, creaky pews. Two silver chandeliers hang, unlit, and service pamphlets still sit at the back of the church, near an altar.

The occasional tourist strolls in, reads about the historic significance of the church on more plaques, and strolls out again. For a church with so much history, the interior looks polished and modern (thanks to a renovation authorized by Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1964). The air smells faintly musty, so faintly that this reporter cannot tell whether the smell is just imaginary, expected of a place so old, where Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy sat and worshiped with her family throughout a century of services.

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's memorial plaque.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s memorial plaque.

Kennedy began her religious life here in 1890, daughter of parishioner and Boston mayor John Fitzgerald. She came back to St. Stephens with her family, and she and her daughters were spotted at Sunday service by congregation members throughout her long life. She often publicly spoke about her fierce Catholic faith, and wrote about her religious inclinations in her autobiography and personal journals.

After returning to Boston from college, Kennedy founded the Ace of Clubs, a Catholic women’s organization, in 1910.  The club still meets today, and celebrated their 100th season two years ago. Her son, Senator Edward Kennedy, used “Ace of Clubs” as a code for correspondence, according to The Boston Globe. He told former St. Stephen’s reverend Kevin Hays that, if the priest ever needed help, he should give one of his staff a letter with “Ace of Clubs” written clearly on the front – the staff would then give Kennedy the letter immediately. The engraving on her memorial alludes to her Ace of Clubs quietly, fitting for the secrecy of the institution.

She returned to the church for the last time in 1995, when her family mourned her passing in a Mass of Resurrection. Various

St. Stephen's, from the neighboring Paul Revere Mall.
St. Stephen’s, from the neighboring Paul Revere Mall.

grieving politicians, celebrities and fellow Kennedy family members attended the funeral, and Kennedy admirers and community members gathered outside the church to listen to the service. Rena Buccino, an 86-year-old North End resident, stood outside the church on that cold January morning.

“It was a very engaging service, very emotional,” Buccino said.  “It was effective because the family was very sociable – after the service, they went to corner store to get coffee, dessert, whatever, and then they carried on in their limousines.”

Almost 19 years later, no one gathers outside St. Stephens, but the quiet seems to suit the famously self-effacing, stoic matriarch. Outside, the air smells sweet, like fried dough, perhaps from the Italian restaurant next door. More tourists pass, and note the plaque. One man, in particular, lingers near the memorial.

“Do you remember when she passed?” this reporter asks.

“Not particularly,” he responds. “But I remember her.”

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