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South Station ChapelBoston claims many firsts, including the nation’s first public park, school, library, and of course, subway system, which opened in 1897. But, first chapel located inside a railroad terminal?

It’s true. Our Lady of the Railways Chapel opened in South Station on February 21, 1955. It was one of several “workers’ chapels” established by Richard Cardinal Cushing while he was archbishop of the Boston Catholic Diocese.  Cushing’s idea was to make spiritual worship and reflection more convenient throughout the workday. Workers, customers, travelers, and visitors of all faiths were welcome.

The South Station chapel was located in the southeast corner of the terminal, on Dorchester Avenue near Summer Street. Originally part of a carriage concourse, the space had housed a movie theater in the 1940s and early 1950s that showed newsreels and short films.

Once pews and an altar replaced theater seats and a stage, the chapel was instantly popular. Some 1,500 people squeezed into the 500-seat chapel for its dedication service and 5,000 daily visitors were not uncommon during the first year. In its heyday, the chapel offered 18 Catholic Masses on the half-hour each Sunday. (Mindful of travelers’ timetables, services were famously short.)

“Folks of all faiths come in to meditate, or just relax,” Father Griffin, administration and Chaplin of Our Lady of the Railways, said in a 1955 Boston Globe interview. “Some here for confession speak in a language that I cannot understand. The man who led the choir one night was Protestant.”

The South Station chapel also was a popular venue for special occasions. A memorial Mass for President John F. Kennedy on December 29, 1963 attracted 1,400 people, including House Speaker John W. McCormack. On December 1, 1955, Salvatore Rebecchini, mayor of Rome, was on hand to present Cushing with a life-sized statue of the Madonna of the Universe. On November 17, 1956, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Africa welcomed their first American members into the order in what previously had always been a private ceremony. The Globe headline read, “They Entered the Convent Through a Railroad Station.”

The chapel also hosted an annual Mass for journalists, held on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of that profession. For a number of years, there even were festive annual reunions for commuters who attended Our Lady of the Railways. The 1959 reunion, at New England Mutual Hall in the Back Bay, featured a program of professional entertainment, with proceeds benefitting the chapel.

south station chapel is closedDespite its popularity, Our Lady of the Railways lasted fewer than two decades. It closed its doors on September 17, 1972, shortly before the southeast section of the terminal was razed to make way for the Stone and Webster building at 245 Summer Street.

In the photo at left, newspaper boy Steve Nee waits to sell his papers in front of the closed chapel in 1972.  Photo Credit: William Ryerson / Boston Globe Staff

But four of Cardinal Cushing’s workers’ chapels remain open – Our Lady of the Airways at Logan Airport (1951), Our Lady of Good Voyage on Northern Avenue (1952), the Society of Mt. Carmel Chapel in the Northshore Mall in Peabody (1960), and St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center (1969). The airport and shopping mall chapels also were “firsts” in the U.S.

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