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The first Catholic at Harvard

In 1804, John Lee (son of Governor Thomas Lee of Maryland) became the first Catholic student to walk Harvard Yard, much to the dismay of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, who at the time was responsible for shepherding all American Catholics.


Being Catholic at Harvard during this time was a great challenge. All students were required to attend daily Protestant prayer services (or risk being fined). Lee amassed a total of $1.11 in fines for each term he spent at Harvard, equal to about a day’s wages for the common person.


Students were also required to attend the college Sunday service unless they walked to their own church, as riding on Sunday was a punishable offense. The only Catholic Church in the area was Holy Cross Cathedral, 4 miles and a boat trip across the Charles. Lee was able to receive a special dispensation from Bishop Carroll to attend services at the Episcopalian Christ Church instead.


Lee withdrew from Harvard after a year and eventually went on to serve in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate. He was known throughout his life for being a dedicated Catholic. 

The Original St. Paul's

The original St. Paul Church was established at the current site of the Smith Campus Center, which is down the street from the current Mount Auburn Street location. At the time 29 Mount Auburn Street was a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph. The building had previously been the Shepherd Congregationalist Church (built in 1830) before the St. Paul’s community moved in.

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President Charles William Eliot

Bishop John Keane

The Harvard Catholic Society

The Harvard Catholic Society is founded in an open meeting in Sever 11 attended by 150 men and presided over by President Charles William Eliot and Bishop John Keane, the Rector of Catholic University. The club was promised room in the Phillips Brooks House which would open 7 years later.

While the society had some struggles in its early years, it was supported by the clergy of St. Paul Parish, Professor J.D.M. Ford, and Rev. John LaFarge, S.J. AB 1901 (who later became editor of America and a prominent civil rights activist).

Read the article from The Crimson announcing the society’s formation.

Phillips Brooks House Opens

The Harvard Catholic Club is given a room in the newly opened Philip Brooks House where it would stay until the acquisition of the Newman House, and would return at other points in history.

The Radcliffe Catholic Club

The Radcliffe Catholic Club is founded under the patronage of Emma Forbes Cary, sister of Radcliffe President Elizabeth Cary Agassiz. Events featured a weekly tea with Forbes Carey and occasional guest lectures and visits from the Cardinal.

Newman House

The first student center was given by Cardinal O’Connell. At the time two-thirds of the Catholic Students at Harvard were commuters, so the new building provided valuable space to meet, study, and relax throughout the day. The club also hosted an annual ball for its members and other dances throughout the year.

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Construction begins for the new Saint Paul Church

When laying the cornerstone of the new church Cardinal O’Connell said “there is a very grave danger, not far distant from this sacred edifice, It is the growing tendency to separate science from faith and spiritual from material forces.”

Cardinal William O'Connell at Harvard in 1937

New Saint Paul Church Opens

The new church officially opened on Easter Sunday. The new church included decorative references to the Harvard Catholic community, namely a statue of St. Paul installed as a memorial to the six Harvard Catholics who died in World War I and a mural picturing parishioners and Harvard Alumni going off to spread the faith.

Pictured in the mural are Cardinal O’Connell, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, Rev. John Ryan, Pastor of St. Paul Church from 1907-1925, along with the missionaries. In the foreground is the Rev. Henry McGlinchey, S.J., who labored and died in India; Servant of God the Very Rev. James Anthony Walsh, founder and director of Maryknoll Missionary Society, Ossining, N.Y.; the Rev. Fr. Robert Carroll, O.P.; the Rev. Paul F. Rooney, O.F.M., Missionary to the Indians at Oklahoma and Lower California, where he lies buried; the Rev. John J. French of the Carmelite Order; and the Passionist Superior of the first mission to China.

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Newman House Demolished

Conversion of Cardinal Avery Dulles

Avery Dulles AB 1940 was received into the church at St. Paul’s with godparents Christopher Huntington and Catherine Clarke. Dulles entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1956, and was later elevated to the rank of Cardinal.


John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard College in 1940. Kennedy served as Vice president of the Harvard Catholic Club during his time as a student, and was a member of the Club for four years and attended Mass regularly. He also volunteered to staff the St. Paul's front desk on weekends.

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Harvard Undergraduate retreat in Fall 1955

Return to the Phillips Brooks House

Following the demolition of the old Newman House in the 1920s, the Harvard Catholics lacked a permanent home, and had been meeting in various locations around Harvard and Cambridge.

Throughout the 1950s Harvard began to include priests and religious pursuing special programs during the summer, which meant that well known figures such as the Venerable Fulton Sheen were able to join in preaching rotations at St. Paul’s.

Thanks to the support of President Nathan Marsh Pusey, Harvard Catholics returned to the Phillips Brooks House for their meetings and as an office for the chaplains.

The Current

Members of the Harvard Catholic Club begin to publish The Current, a quarterly magazine for Catholics to share thoughts on secular and religious topics of the 1950s. Michael Novak AM 1966 was an editor during his time at Harvard.

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Clubs merge

The Harvard and Radcliffe Catholic Clubs officially merged to become the “Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Club.”

Student Center Opens

A new student center opens for the recently merged Harvard and Radcliffe Catholic Clubs. The center was a school annex that was renovated to the plans of parishioner and Design School Dean Josep Lluís Sert.

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Choir School Opens

Theodore Marier and Rev. Msgr. Augustine Hickey found the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School, which would later be renamed to the St. Paul’s Choir School.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (who would become Pope John Paul II in 1978) gives a lecture at Harvard entitled “Alienation or Participation?”

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Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa tells Harvard Class Day Audience, “You have many poor people here. Find them, love them, put your love for them into living action.” St. Paul’s and the Harvard Radcliffe Catholic Student Center held a special collection for the Missionaries of Charity.

Old Catholic Center Demolished

The old Harvard Catholic Center and St. Paul’s Choir school were demolished to allow for construction of the current structure which houses the Catholic Center, Choir School, rectory, and parish offices.


New Catholic Center Opens

Construction of the new building is finished and the Catholic Center is officially opened on November 1st followed by a weekend of talks, gathering, and celebration.

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Bishop John Boles (then Senior Chaplain) and Rev. George S. Salzmann, OSFS (then a Harvard PhD student)

Response to the "Black Mass"

In response to plans for a "black mass," an act of satanic worship mocking the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to be presented at Harvard by a Harvard student group, the Catholic Center and St. Paul's gathered for a Holy Hour to pray that those associated with such acts may turn away from evil and towards the light of Jesus Christ.


Chapel of the Women Doctors

The chapel, which was renovated as a gift from the class of 2018, now is dedicated to the Women Doctors of the church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Hildegard of Bingen. The chapel also houses an icon of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom.

Harvard Catholic Forum

The Forum was started in the Fall of 2020 as a way to share the riches of Catholic thought and culture with the academic, professional, and artistic worlds of Cambridge, Boston, and beyond. The initial programming was hosted via webinars due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has since grown to include in-person and livestreamed talks, non-credit courses, masterclasses, and sacred music programming.


Learn more about the Forum and access archived recordings here.



The Harvard Catholic Center continues to serve the greater Harvard community through opportunities for prayer, service, and fellowship!


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At the center is a curved bridge, reminiscent of the bridges over the nearby Charles River and emblematic of the English university from which our city of Cambridge gets its name. The heart above the bridge, emanating rays of divine love, is taken from the coat of arms of our patron, Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great Anglican convert to Catholicism and author of “The Idea of a University.”  Below the bridge is the book from the seal of Harvard, inscribed with the phrase “Veritas,” or “Truth,” and laid upon the sword of the martyrdom of our parish patron, St. Paul. Written underneath, the motto “Christo et Ecclesiae” (“For Christ and the Church”), adopted from the original Harvard seal, proclaims the aim and goal of the Catholic Center. Both book and sword are depicted on a crimson background, the Harvard color of power, life, and energy.


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