Oblates of Mary Immaculate - O.M.I.
The history of Saint William's Parish in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, cannot be fully appreciated without first focusing on the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a group of religious missionary priests who arrived in the Lowell area in 1867 and in Tewksbury in 1883 to serve the spiritual needs of the poor, infirmed, and indigent at the State Almshouse (now Tewksbury Hospital). The history of St. William's Church and the story of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.) in Tewksbury are virtually inseparable.
History of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, O.M.I.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.) were founded in 1816 at Aix-en-Provence, France, by a French Bishop, Fr. Eugene de Mazenod, to serve the needs of the suffering and abandoned. He was born in France on August 1, 1782. In 1811 he was ordained priest and five years later founded the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which now numbers some 5000 members. Named Bishop of Marseilles in 1837, he fully realized the episcopal motto which he had chosen: "He sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor." As he lay dying on May 21, 1861, he said to the Oblates about him: "Practice amongst yourselves charity, charity, charity . . . and zeal for the salvation of souls." On October 19, 1975, Bishop Eugene de Mazenod was beatified by Pope Paul VI. His picture may be found in a stained glass window in the church Sacristy. The "Adoration Room" downstairs in St. William's Church is dedicated in his name. On December 3, 1996, Bishop de Mazenod was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul II.Blessed Joseph Gerard, O.M.I. Another well-known leader of the Oblates mission was Father Joseph Gerard, O.M.I., a missionary who worked in Lesotho, Africa, among the Basutho people. He was born in France in 1831. At the age of twenty he entered the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He was ordained a priest in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. In 1862 he went as a pioneering missionary to Lesotho and spent the rest of his long life there sharing the message of the Gospel. His active love for the Basutho people, his care for the sick and the weak, and his repute as a man of prayer have earned him an enduring place in the history and memory of that nation. A flourishing local church bears witness to his life and work. He died on May 29, 1914, and was declared Blessed on September 15, 1988, by Pope John Paul II. A room downstairs in St. William's Church is dedicated in his name.
The Oblates Come to America
The Oblates, at the invitation of Bishop John Williams of Boston in 1867, were offered a Parish to serve the French-speaking people of Lowell. The Parish would provide some revenue for this apostolate as they continued their work of preaching missions. Father Andrew-Marie Garin, O.M.I., and Father Candidus Lagier, O.M.I., arrived in April 1868 and gave the first mission in the basement of St. Patrick's Church on Suffolk Street in Lowell. The people were so inspired by Father Garin that within the month they raised money and purchased a Protestant Church to hold their own services and named it St. Joseph's Church. As their activity became rooted, the Oblates rented a house for living quarters, located on High Street Square, now called Fayette Street. They served three churches regularly at this time: St. John's Chapel for the Irish, St. Joseph's for the French-Canadians, and St. Andrew's in North Billerica. As the Oblates' work became very successful in the area and with the establishment of the Oblate Community canonically under the official title of St. John the Evangelist, it was only natural to extend the activity of the Oblates in the United States.
The Oblates Arrive in Tewksbury, MA
In 1868 the Oblates, as an act of charity, began to serve and care for the poor and sick of the State Almshouse in Tewksbury. Father Louis Lebret, O.M.I., was the first chaplain to act in this capacity, and the Oblates have continued to serve through the years. He spent one entire day a week caring for the people at the hospital. Father Lebret also served the mission parish in North Billerica twice a month. At that time he resided in Lowell with the other Oblate Fathers. The need for a place to live and a training place for young men to work among the poor resulted in the establishment of the Novitiate on Chandler Street in 1883.
The First Novitiate
In July 1883 the Eastern American Province of the Oblate Mission was formed by the General Administration of the Oblates in Rome. Father James McGrath, O.M.I. was appointed the first Provincial. The first concern of the new provincial administration was the establishment of a Novitiate. On October 12, 1883, the Oblates purchased the Kittredge Estate, encompassing nine acres of land on Chandler Street, for the Novitiate. All the buildings including a main building and several smaller ones were in good condition. There was also a pond, now known as Round Pond, for recreational use. No Parish had been established in Tewksbury by 1888 so the residents would travel to Lowell to attend services. Since there was a need for a place to worship, several families asked Father Emery for permission to attend religious services at the Novitiate Chapel. The first Mass celebrated by Father Emery for the Catholic residents took place on October 28, 1888. On that day the chapel was filled to capacity, which emphasized the need for a larger place to worship. The Novitiate became the center of worship accommodating all the spiritual and sacramental needs of the community. However, it was not until 1910 that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston actually gave approval to allow residents to worship at the Oblate Novitiate. Fire destroyed the Novitiate on February 7, 1895. Although the building was located on the side of Round Pond, it could not be saved because the pond was frozen. The Oblates could only stand by and watch it burn. A large farmhouse located on another site of the property was refurbished and became the second Novitiate.
The Second Novitiate
The second Novitiate, begun twenty days after the destruction of the old house and barn, was formally opened November 12, 1896, when the Reverend Father Campeau, O.M.I., offered a solemn high Mass of Thanksgiving to commemorate the second life, so to speak, of the ever-increasing Oblate community. In 1898 with an increase of the Oblate community, a chapel was constructed at the Tewksbury Hospital with Masses being celebrated regularly. It was in 1911 that two permanent priests would be assigned, one each to the Tewksbury Hospital and to St. Andrew's Church in North Billerica. These priests served on a regular basis while both still resided at the Oblate Novitiate. During the early 1900s the Oblates regularly conducted Mass and held Sunday School for the town's children in the Center School. In 1916 St. Mary's Hall (South Tewksbury) was owned by the Silver Lake Library Association. It was located on the corners of Vernon Street and Glenwood Road (St. Mary's Road) in South Tewksbury, today the VFW site. The Silver Lake Catholic Literary Association purchased the property in 1919. Oblates from the Novitiate held one Mass each Sunday at the Hall.
The Oblates Continue to Minister
The Oblates continued to serve as Chaplains at the Tewksbury Hospital and to serve the spiritual needs of the Catholics of Tewksbury. The need for a place of worship was becoming greater and in December 1934, permission was given to establish a Parish in Tewksbury. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate accepted the challenge to conduct that parish and still serve there today. The Oblate Novitiate was gutted by fire once again on January 25, 1959. Since it housed the priests who served St. William's, immediate preparation for construction of a rectory at the church had to take place. It began in March 1959, was completed in October of that same year, and on December 13, 1959, the dedication took place. The third Novitiate was dedicated on the Feast of Our Lady of Hope, January 17, 1962. The rebuilding of it was aided by the generosity of many friends. As St. William's spiritual and material needs were guided and encouraged from the zeal of the Oblates, many enjoyable celebrations took place throughout the years. For the Oblates, extra special days are remembered when the Founder of the Oblates, Eugene de Mazenod, was beatified and canonized. Two recent celebrations include the 100th Anniversary of the Oblates in Tewksbury in 1983 and the 50th Anniversary of St. William's in 1985.
Two Special Celebrations
100th Anniversary of the Oblates In 1983, the 100th Anniversary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Tewksbury, St. William's Church commemorated the Oblates' presence in the Town of Tewksbury. The 100th Anniversary Committee, parishioners of St. William's, chose to celebrate an entire week of events September 25 through October 2 and called it "Oblate Fathers Festival Week." The highlights chosen were a parade, a barbecue, and a dinner dance. This celebration was held to honor and to thank the Oblates who have given generously of themselves to preach the gospel message in serving the town and in ministering to the needy at the Tewksbury Hospital. Father Joseph Blaney, O.M.I., Pastor, commissioned a firm from Italy to make a special keepsake medal to commemorate the event. The committee wanted to give something to the Oblates and to the community to remember the anniversary. The parade was held on Sunday, September 25, and surpassed any to date in town. A plaque was presented to the Hospital during a short ceremony by Father George Buckley, O.M.I., one of the Chaplains serving at the time. Immediately following the parade, a chicken barbeque was held on the novitiate grounds with entertainment throughout the afternoon. On Friday, October 1, a Dinner Dance was held two locations, Tewksbury-Wilmington Lodge of Elks and the Knights of Columbus Hall, to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. 50th Anniversary of St. William's Parish On September 28, 1985, St. William's Parish celebrated its 50th Anniversary. His Eminence, Bernard Cardinal Law, officiated at a Celebration Mass which was followed by a 50th Anniversary Dinner Dance.
The Oblate Infirmary and Retirement Residence Today
The Third Oblate Novitiate Today the Novitiate serves as a retirement residence and infirmary for the Oblates. The Novitiate grounds have been beautified to provide a lovely environment for the retired priests. A beautiful tree-lined walkway, with sculptured stations of the cross enclosed in small, open, hand-carved houses, leads to the well-kept Oblate Cemetery where many Oblates, who have generously and unselfishly served the community of Tewksbury and the poor and indigent at the Tewksbury Hospital since 1883, are buried. Masses for the Catholics of Tewksbury are occasionally still held at the Novitiate Chapel.