Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church. Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building. St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations. The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.
As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880’s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building. Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office. The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building. The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.
Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction. As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation. That building’s size was still considerable: 120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height. The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people. Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.
Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years. The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.
Construction began in 1892. Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather. Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people. Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass. Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams. Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century. Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high. Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986. The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed. Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90’s. Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse. Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site. The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory. Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church). An insurance agency now occupies the building. St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.