The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Catholic Exodus from Eliot School: Lunch Talk Recap

On Friday, 14 May local historian and author of The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood Alex Goldfeld gave a presentation on “The Eliot School and the Catholic Exodus of 1859.” 

Before getting into details about the 1859 incident, Goldfeld sketched out the history of Boston’s school system, beginning with the founding of Boston Latin in 1635, and of Catholics in Boston during the Colonial, Revolutionary, and New Republic periods (giving, as an example, the anti-Catholic sentiment expressed in raucous Pope’s Day celebrations in the pre-Revolutionary period). He also discussed the intersection of these two histories: the options available to Catholic students for their education during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Catholics, although a persecuted minority in Massachusetts, had nevertheless been a presence in Boston since its founding, and by 1788 celebrated their first public mass and by 1830 boasted a population some 10,000 strong in Boston and Charlestown, shepherded by one bishop and four priests. Although the Catholic church provided religious instruction for students, they did not – during the first half of the nineteenth century – develop a parochial school system that offered instruction in secular as well as religious subjects. Children from Catholic families attended public, Protestant-run, grammar schools, including the Eliot School in Boston’s North End. 

In March of 1859, Father Wiget, a recently-arrived Swiss Jesuit priest, urged some of the boys in his St. Mary’s Sunday school to resist recitation of Protestant prayers and Bible readings in school. On 14 March, a ten-year-old boy named Thomas Whall (at student at Eliot) was beaten for thirty minutes on the hands after refusing to follow the teacher’s instructions and afterwards fainted when he finally conceded defeat and attempted to read the assigned lesson. 

This punishment (perceived as excessive even by the standard of the day) caused Whall’s parents to file a lawsuit against the Eliot School administration and sparked widespread controversy about the place of corporeal punishment as well as religious instruction in public schools. Between 300-400 of the Eliot School’s approximately 700 pupils left in protest (though many trickled back) and St. Mary’s parish responded by organizing a Catholic school that stood as an alternative to public school education (a school that remained open until 1973). 

Goldfeld argues that this incident and the political rhetoric surrounding it on both sides raised questions about the place of religion in the school system and the role of public schools in the assimilation of immigrants that still have echoes in modern-day debates. 

Alex Goldfeld has been a local historian and tour guide in Boston for the past ten years and can be found online at It was a pleasure to have him speak at the MHS and we look forward to seeing what his next project will be.

permalink | Published: Monday, 17 May, 2010, 8:00 AM


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