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Dorchester was settled in 1630 by English Puritans. Later in the century (1670) the First Parish Church moved up to Meeting House Hill, providing a central focus for the village neighborhood in that area. This section retained its small town feel, with a church on the village green, until after 1900 when extensive housing development took place around the neighborhood. In the late 1800s the second major focal point, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, was completed. With its strong institutional base established, the working class Catholic population of the neighborhood grew rapidly, occupying the many new triple-deckers. In the 20th century, St. Peter’s continued to be one of the leading parishes in the diocese, eventually adapting to serve new groups of people in the neighborhood. Although there was loyalty to the parish, some residents left in the general movement to the suburbs. Over time the neighborhood experienced racial transition as increasing numbers of African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Hispanics, and Vietnamese settled in various parts of the area and adjacent sections. In recent years Bowdoin-Geneva has experienced a significant amount of violence and other neighborhood problems. However, there have also been positive signs with the construction and renovation of housing, some commercial improvements, and the creation of community and youth centers.
The historic congregation meeting at the First Parish Church on Meeting House Hill is a reminder of the neighborhood’s ties to the first settlement of Dorchester. The person most responsible for gathering the first group of settlers into a congregation to immigrate to Dorchester was John White, pastor of Trinity Parish, Dorchester, England. He had been active in recruiting English Puritans to immigrate to Cape Ann, Massachusetts between 1623 and 1625 under the original Dorchester Company, but this enterprise based on fishing failed by 1626.1 In the spring of 1630, he gathered a group from the west of England, and they met at New Hospital, Plymouth, England, where he preached to them, helped them organize their church, and sent them off to the new world. John Maverick and John Warham were chosen as pastors. The group of about 140 departed on March 20, 1630 in the ship “Mary and John.” The settlers arrived at Nantasket Point on May 30, 1630 and shortly after that decided to settle at Dorchester. The official founding date of Dorchester was June 6, 1630. Their ship was the first to arrive of the Gov. Winthrop fleet. Therefore, the congregation is the oldest in the present day city of Boston. The town was probably named Dorchester in honor of John White who was pastor in Dorchester, England or because a number of the settlers were from Dorchester (of 108 early Dorchester freemen, 26 were from Dorchester, England).2
In 1633 the plantation of Dorchester formed the first town government in New England and chose 12 selectmen. Also, that year 80 more settlers came from Weymouth, England. In 1633 the town assessment of Dorchester was far larger than other area towns including Boston, indicating that Dorchester must have been the largest or richest town at that time.
Although many original settlers moved to Connecticut during the years from 1635 to 1637, new immigrants arrived from England in 1635 along with Pastor Richard Mather. He played an important role in the church and community during the following years. He helped write the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in the American colonies. Under the guidance of pastoral meetings in Cambridge, he helped to compose the Cambridge Platform of 1648, concerning church membership, discipline and polity. He also contributed to the Half-Way Covenant in 1662 that revised requirements for church membership. The Mather family including his son, Increase Mather, and his grandson Cotton Mather, had a deep influence on the shape of colonial religion. Although these religious issues may not seem as important today, they were quite central in those days because many people had uprooted their lives to come to Massachusetts primarily for religious reasons. The first church building was built in 1631 near the present Cottage and Pleasant streets. In 1645 a new building was constructed, and in 1670 it was moved to Meeting House Hill.3
In May 1639 the town established a school later known as the Mather School, which still exists near the First Church on Meeting House Hill. The town voted to support the school by taxing those using Thompson’s Island. Thus the Mather School is one of the oldest schools in the country. All students were to be admitted and taught, whether rich or poor. In those days there was no need for an afterschool program since the school hours were 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. for most of the year. On Mondays students were questioned about what they had learned the day before at church. On Saturdays they were taught the principles of Christianity according to the catechism.
In 1654, according to Captain Edward Johnson, there were about 140 houses, 450 cattle, various orchards, gardens full of fruit trees, and corn land.4
One of the earlier youth organizations in this neighborhood was the Young Men’s Association, which formed on December 25, 1697 on Meeting House Hill and lasted for 150 years until 1848. “Several serious young men of the town joined themselves into an association for religious purposes, which was to continue until they formed family connections or left the town.”5 This group of young men met on Sunday afternoons for reading and prayer.
From the late 18th century until at least the early decades of the 19th century, the Eaton family ran the Eaton Tavern and a grocery and general store on the site of the present Eaton Square. Their home, Eaton Hall, was a landmark for many years and the site of parties and dances. Captain Ebenezer Eaton (born in 1787) worked in the Custom House and was a representative in the state legislature.
By the middle of the 19th century there were a number of streets laid out around Mount Bowdoin off Washington Street. Hancock Street connected Uphams Corner with Meetinghouse Hill. The Lyceum next to the First Church was dedicated in 1840 and provided space for community meetings and activities. The town center retained its historic character for many decades, although new housing was developed in some of the surrounding areas as better transportation became available. In the 1850s the New York and New England Railroad began to provide service between Boston and central Dorchester. Some Irish Catholics had settled at Glover’s Corner below Meeting House Hill before the 1870s, but with the extension of horse drawn streetcar service during that decade many more started moving into Dorchester.6 In 1870 Dorchester voted to unite with Boston, and this annexation brought increased utility and sanitation services. By 1890 the streetcars were electrified, and by 1895 cross-town streetcar service made mid-Dorchester and St. Peter’s Parish accessible to lower middle class workers.7 Many of these new Canadian and Irish residents bought or rented the increasing number of triple-deckers being built. Previously, many of the new houses had been single family or two family residences. As the 1894 Bromley map of Dorchester shows, large areas southwest of Meeting House Hill were beginning to be subdivided, but were still undeveloped except along Longfellow Street, some parts of Geneva Avenue, and the area south of Westville Street. There were still large estates and tracts of land owned by families like the Mays, the Baileys, the Cushings, the Carters, and by Patrick A. Collins and the Robert Treat Paine family. By 1894 some northern parts of the neighborhood like Coleman and Richfield streets were quite fully built up while Hamilton Street (then called Barrington Street) and Barry Street were still largely undeveloped.
In 1898, Edwin Bacon observed that in spite of the great changes, Monument Square, flanked by old single family homes, large trees, the impressive Lyman Fountain in Eaton Square, the classic Lyceum Hall and the colonial First Parish Church still gave the center of Meeting House Hill the feel of an old New England town:
"With the great upbuilding of Dorchester since its annexation to Boston, the cutting of streets through homestead lots and large family estates, the erection of lines of dwellings where before were groves, wooded hill-slopes, pastures and meadows, transforming the place from a sedate rural town to a smart and thickening residential district—with all these changes which have marked its development by real estate operators and ‘syndicates,’—the character of the Meeting House Hill centre has remained quite as in the town life."8
The second important institution that has influenced and served the community for many years, besides the First Parish Church of Dorchester, is St. Peter’s Catholic Church. These two churches and their associated programs have been a strong focal point for much of this area.
St. Peter’s Congregation grew initially out of a Sunday School when Father McNulty started holding a church service in the Lyceum Hall in 1869. After initially planning to build on East Street, Bishop Williams decided to purchase the former estate of Captain Jack Percival, a naval hero of the War of 1812, on the west side of Meeting House Hill. In the fall of 1872, the bishop appointed Rev. Peter Ronan as pastor of the new parish. The bold, young Father Ronan would become an important leader in Dorchester. He called in a new, highly respected architect, Patrick Keeley, to redesign the planned brick church as a much larger Gothic-style cathedral using stone from the building site itself. The cornerstone was laid on August 24, 1873, the church basement was ready to use in 1875, and the building was dedicated on February 18, 1884.9 In 1896-98 the parochial school was built, and in 1905-06, the large convent was completed. St. Peter’s parish became the largest in the diocese numerically and with its institutions was a center of the community.10 Father Ronan “was universally considered the first citizen of Dorchester, and Catholics and Protestants alike regarded that familiar face and smile as a benediction.”11 His name lives on in the nearby Ronan Park, created out of the Patrick Collins estate and other properties. Father Ronan also helped establish St. Paul’s Church (now Holy Family Parish), the Church of St. Leo, and St. Margaret’s Church (now Mother of Teresa) as daughter churches out of the territory of St. Peter’s parish. St. Williams (1910) and St. Ambrose’s (1914) parishes were also created out of the former territory of St. Peter’s. After Father Ronan, the pastors of St. Peter’s were Bishop Anderson and Monsignor Richard J. Haberlin.12
The large parochial school and impressive church continued to attract new residents to the neighborhood and hold established parishioners. Comparing the 1918 Bromley map with the 1894 one of the Bowdoin-Geneva area reveals that almost all the old estates and undeveloped land had been tightly packed with triple-deckers during the intervening 25 years.13 The William Emerson estate between Rosseter Street and Geneva Avenue, the Free Home for Consumptives on Quincy Street, and Ronan Park were among the few large tracts and open spaces still preserved.
During the first six decades of the 20th century, this neighborhood was primarily a working class, white Catholic neighborhood. Between 1960 and 1970 the Mount Bowdoin/Bowdoin North section on the west began to go through a significant racial transition. The following decade this transition continued, and the Fields Corner West sub-neighborhood also experienced rapid racial change. Perhaps some of this change was influenced by the program organized by the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) making easy home mortgage loans available within a specified area of Boston that included the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. In recent years the broader neighborhood has seen a growth not only in the number of African Americans, but also in the number of Cape Verdeans, Hispanics, Vietnamese, and people from the Caribbean. While there were many abandoned buildings, vacant lots and cases of arson in the past, there have been many housing improvements and some new construction in recent years. Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation and other groups have built affordable housing like the Bowdoin-Geneva I, II , and III developments. The Main Streets program has had some success in improving the commercial district and bringing business owners together for neighborhood improvement. Several other positive community collaborations and new developments hold promise for the future, even though the neighborhood has experienced a number of traumatic acts of violence in recent years. The Bowdoin Street Health Center and the recently renovated St. Peter’s Teen Center are both involved in initiatives to serve youth and reduce violence. Major new centers are serving the neighborhood, including the Catholic Charities Yawkey Center and the Vietnamese American Community Center. The neighborhood has a great heritage dating back to the 1600s, and a rich present diversity to create a solid future.
1. Samuel Eliot Morrison, Builders of the Bay Colony, pb. ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 27-29.
2. Samuel J. Barnes, “Dorchester in the Colonial Period,” in The Memorial History of Boston, ed. Justin Winsor, 4 vols. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1881), 1:426.
3. New church buildings were built in 1678, 1743, 1816 and 1896-7 (the present building).
4. Edward Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England, ed. by William F. Poole (Andover, Mass.: W. F. Draper, 1867). Cited in Memorial History of Boston, 1:429.
5. Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society, History of the Town of Dorchester, Mass. (Boston: E. Clapp, Jr., 1859), 269.
6. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 83.
7. Ibid., 85.
8. Edwin Monroe Bacon, Walks and Rides in the Country About Boston (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., Appalachian Mountain Club, 1898), 390.
9. Robert H. Lord, John E. Sexton, and Edward T. Harrington, History of the Archdiocese of Boston, 3 vols. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1944), 3:249.
10. Ibid., 3:250.
12. Ibid., 683-84.
13. See the “1894 Dorchester Bromley Combine 1,” and the 1918 Dorchester Bromley Combine Final” maps at the Boston Atlas website, www.mapjunction.com/BRA/ (accessed 1 July 2009).