St. Gabriel’s Monastery is a formerly abandoned residential and institutional complex in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.
St. Gabriel’s was constructed between 1909 and 1965 to serve the Passionists, a Roman Catholic religious order. 1 The 14-acre site includes a cemetery, St. Gabriel’s Church, Monastery, Retreat House, and a shrine. The land was blessed by Boston’s archbishops and set aside as a male cloister. 7 If a woman ever strayed onto the grounds, even accidently, it had to be reconsecrated in a special ceremony.
Prior to the construction of St. Gabriel’s, the area was commonly referred to as Monastery Hill or Nevins Hill. 1 It was settled shortly after the city of Cambridge was established in 1638 and later owned by Captain Cunningham. Cunningham’s house burned in 1770, replaced by another residence, Bellevue, by Samuel Willis Pomeroy in 1777. Pomeroy was a founding member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and was a State Representative.
The estate was acquired by Jared Coffin in 1843. 1 Coffin, a merchant and sea captain, was the fifth great-grandson of Tristam Coffin, one of the first purchasers and founders of Nantucket. In 1845, Coffin constructed a Greek Revival mansion, another house, three barns, and extensive gardens on the site of Bellevue. The site was sold to his son-in-law, David Nevins, several years later. In the 1910’s, the mansion was moved to 212 Washington Street to make way for the monastery.
The Congregation of Discalsed of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, also known as the Passionist Fathers, was founded in Italy in 1694. 1 The Passionists arrived in the United States in 1852.
In March 1908, the Passionist Fathers purchased nine acres of land from the trustees of the Nevins estate for St. Gabriel’s Monastery. 1 It was named after a young Passionist who died at the age of 26 and was beatified in 1908.
Construction began shortly after of the Monastery Building. 1 It was designed in the Mission architectural style by T. Edward Sheehan and included relevant details such as a red clay tile roof, an arcaded entry porch, four-story corner towers, overhanging eaves, mission-shaped dormers, and a ping-beige stucco finish. 1 The stone and cast masonry were sourced from the demolished Hancock Building, which was located at the corner of Devonshire and Franklin streets until 1908. Work on the new structure was finished in 1909.
The Archdiocese of Boston noted that the complex was “crowning one of the highest hills in the vicinity, with its white adobe walls, red tile roof, truncated towers, and many gilded crosses, has become one of the most familiar and striking features of the western landscape of Boston.” 1
The first chapel for the Passionists was in a converted barn that was left intact from the Nevins estate. 1 Mr. Graham, an architect, drafted plans for the chapel’s renovation. Much of the interior woodwork was sourced from the T. Elston & Company, demolition contractors from South Boston. The 14-acre Monastery grounds were designed and graded by the Olmsted Brothers, the successor firm to Frederick Law Olmsted, between January 1911 and November 1914.
The first retreat for laymen was held on December 8, 1911. 1 Weekend retreats were later held for school and professional groups, and for various clubs and organizations. This led to the development of the Retreat House. Construction began in 1925, when an old frame chapel, which was originally a barn, was moved. The new building was dedicated on January 23, 1927, and was designed to connect the Monastery with the Church. Like the Monastery Building, it included Mission styling but with a modest central entrance and red Spanish tile.
The retreat house was expanded upon with a four-story wing in 1950. 1 By 1961, over 125,000 laymen had participated in retreats at the Monastery.
The Church of St. Gabr1el was designed soon after by Maginnis and Walsh, a well regarded Boston architectural firm that specialized in church design. 1 The two-story building, Basilican in the plan, was styled after early Christian churches of northern Italy. Construction on the church was completed at the cost of $175,000 in 1929.
The “Souvenir of Solemn Blessing of St. Gabriel’s Chapel,” which was published for the dedication of the church, described the interior:
In point of architectural style the building conforms to the Italian Renaissance rendered in terms of creamy brick and trimmings of stone, and the roof of a pleasing tone of red tile… Two side entrances flank this on the axis of the side aisles of the chapel. Between these vestibules are related the staircases to the organ gallery above. The Chapel is of cruciform plan, of striking compact design, and has an air of spaciousness despite the fact that it is arranged for a seating capacity of only seven hundred. The nave and side aisles, which are comparatively short, have a total exterior width of 70 feet. The exterior length of the Chapel over-all is 145 feet. An unusual proportion of the length, however, is empraced within the capacious sanctuary. This has a semi-circular apse concentric with which are the stalls for the large community.
A baldachin of striking design supported by four marble columns enframes the main altar, – the canopy being of stucco rendered solidly in gold·. The altar itself is executed in Botticino, the appointments with inlays of color and bronze symbols. A beautiful pavement is introduced in the chancel with varying tones of Tennessee marble with inlays of color, embroideries and medallions …. An ambulatory sweeps around the apse and makes for direct connection through the Retreat House with the Monastery. This ambulatory is opened to the chancel by means of an arcade, an open screen of metal following the line of the columns. To the east of is the priests sacristy, 24×40 feet. In the center of each of the transepts is provided a shrine altar flanked by two confessionals. The walls of the Chapel throughout are done in stucco, the vault over the sanctuary being richly coffered. Only in this portion of the chapel has the mural decoration been applied, – the beautiful stained glass windows by Mr. Sotter of Pennsylvania have been recently installed. Beneath the Chapel with ample communication by stairways from both ends of the chapel and within the sacristies is the lower chapel with corresponding seating capacity….
The 36 stained glass windows inside were designed by George W. Setter, who was based out of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 1 Setter was known for his work in the High Gothic style, and had designed windows for churches in states in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and West. St. Gabriel’s was his only work in New England.
In 1966, the Shrine to Our Lady Fatima, a one-story, hexagonal structure, was added. 1 Finished at the cost of $100,000, it was reportedly a reproduction of the vision seen by three children in a hollow in Portugal. It was sponsored by the Crusaders of Fatima, a Portuguese-Arnerican organization.
[su_spoiler title=”Timeline” icon=”caret”]
- 1911: St. Gabriel’s Monastery Building
- 1927: St. Gabriel’s Retreat House
- 1929: Church of St. Gabr1el
- 1950’s: St. Gabriel’s Retreat House Addition
In mid-1978, the Passionist Missionary Society announced that it would sell St. Gabriel’s, citing high maintenance costs, declining fellowship and a dwindling congregation. 1 7 It considered marketing the property to New York developers. 7 The Monastery Hill Task Force was formed by local residents and representatives of area institutions, and Wallace, Floyd, Ellenzweig, Moore Inc. were retained in June 1979 to provide urban planning and architectural services for the Task Force. 1 The study was funded by Blue Cross, Boston Health and Hospitals Department, and the U.S. Public Health Hospital. The study, completed in October, noted that the buildings on Monastery Hill should be reused. The site was then submitted to the Boston Landmarks Commission requesting the designation of a Monastery Hill Landmark District.
The property was offered for sale to the adjoining St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which declined the offer because of financial troubles. 6 On August 15, 1980, the Passionist Fathers, out of concern that the complex would be torn down by developers, decided to sell the property to the newly-formed St. Elizabeth’s Foundation. The Foundation was established to maintain the Monastery complex and to rent space to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and the affiliated 225 student nursing school. It was opposed by a few vocal members of the Washington Heights Civic Association, who feared that the property would be overcome with gentrification.
The nursing school began operating out of the Monastery Building on December 1, and over the next year, $250,000 was spent by the Foundation to renovate the Retreat House to serve as dormitories for the nursing school and to install a new roof on the church. 7
At a public hearing held on March 10, 1981, the Boston Landmarks Commission voted to designate the Monastery Building as a city landmark. 1 St. Elizabeth’s Foundation filed an appeal in Superior Court, and as a result, Mayor White vetoed the designation. A second petition to designate the Monastery Building as a city landmark was sent in January 1983 and the structure was designated as such in October 1985.
As of 1989, the first floor of the Monastery Building was used as office space for the St. Elizabeth’s Foundation and Hospital. 1 The offices for the hospital’s nursing staff were on the second floor while the remainder served as classrooms and dormitories for the hospital’s nursing school. The circa 1929 church was still used for services, while the Lower Church was repurposed as an adult day care for 20 senior citizens.
Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, one of Boston’s oldest real estate firms, with financial backing by Chicago-based investment firm Blue Vista Capital Partners, purchased St. Gabriel’s from Steward Health Care System, owner of the adjoining St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Foundation, for $21 million on December 31, 2015. 5 Cabot and Blue Vista’s subsidiary, Peak Campus Development, proposed to build out 400 to 500 apartments on the site by renovating the Monastery Building and constructing additional structures.
The project was aimed at graduate students, an underserved market in the city. 5 The population of graduate students had increased by nearly 50%, to more than 48,000, since 1994. Most lived off-campus, driving up rents across the city.
Cabot submitted formal plans to redevelop St. Gabriel’s in July 2016. 2 Plans called for 679 apartments in three new buildings, a renovated Monastery Building, and the existing on-site Pierce House. It would also include 395 parking spaces.
A revised proposal from Cabot in late-2017 included the renovation of the Church of St. Gabr1el and Monastery structures and the demolition of the Retreat House and Retreat House addition. 3 It was planned to retain the on-site Pierce House, Our Lady of Fatima Shrine and the Olmsted Brothers-designed landscaping along Washington Street. The church would be repurposed as a community space with lounges and co-working space on the first floor and a fitness area in the basement. The Monastery would be renovated into residences, while additional structures around would be built for additional housing units. The renovation of the church and Monastery was projected to cost $25 million. 4
The site would include 660-units, 105 of which would be condominiums. 3 4 Of the units, roughly 98 units, or 15%, would be marketed as affordable; the city required 13%.
The new plans were supported by the Boston Preservation Alliance. 3 In November 2017, the BPDA approved of a 660-unit project.
In late spring 2018, significant items were removed from the buildings for donation to local religious organizations and community members or were stored for future reuse. 3 Heavy construction on the St. Gabriel’s Monastery redevelopment began in July 2018 and the project should be completed by the fall of 2019.
[su_spoiler title=”Further Reading” icon=”caret”]
[/su_spoiler][su_spoiler title=”Sources” icon=”caret”]
- St. Gabriel’s Monastery Building. Boston Landmarks Commission, 1988.
- Acitelli, Tom. “Redevelopment of Brighton’s Old St. Gabriel’s Monastery Could Start in Mid-2017.” Curbed, 27 Jul. 2016.
- “Saint Gabriel’s.” coUrbanize. Article.
- “Several hundred apartments, condos approved for Brighton parcel next to St. E’s, which was slapped around at hearing.” Universal Hub, 17 Nov. 2017.
- Logan, Tim. “Grad student housing proposed for Brighton property.” Boston Globe, 5 Jan. 2016.
- Stack, James. “New use for Brighton monastery.” Boston Globe, 17 Aug. 1980, p. 7.
- Kaufman, Jonathan. “Battle of St. Gabriel’s.” Boston Globe, 18 Feb. 1985, pp. 1-9.