The Pastor and the Bridge

August 12, 2011
By

How the Casey Overpass Got Its Name

FOREST HILLS—If Monsignor William J. Casey were alive today, he surely would be serving on the “working advisory group” overseeing plans to replace the overpass that bears his name.

Casey, who lived from 1872 to 1949, was a fixture of Forest Hills. He was the founding pastor of the defunct St. Andrew the Apostle parish. He joined in dedicating the West Roxbury District Courthouse.

And, in true JP rabble-rousing fashion, he was among 600 locals who “stormed” the State House in 1923 to oppose plans to take homes by eminent domain to enlarge the Forest Hills T Station, as the Boston Globe reported at the time.

For all that, Casey got his named slapped on one of Jamaica Plain’s least-loved features: a generic highway bridge over Washington and South streets that was so poorly designed, the state will demolish it in a few years.

Whether the Casey Overpass will be replaced by a new bridge or a nicer set of surface streets is a decision the WAG is helping the state make. No one has decided—or even asked—whether Casey’s name will remain memorialized in the final product, said John Romano, the state Department of Transportation liaison who has been overseeing the WAG meetings.

The overpass carries Route 203, and is also a segment of the Arborway, the historic state parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. That’s not how Olmsted envisioned things in his 1890s design, which featured wide, tree-lined surface streets like the rest of the Arborway.

There was, however, always a bridge. Olmsted incorporated the massive, granite Old Colony Railroad bridge into his design. It ran north-south across what is today New Washington Street and up the modern Southwest Corridor. In 1909, another bridge was added to carry the new elevated public transit train line up Washington Street.

Olmsted’s horse-era design was quickly choked with the newfangled automobiles in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, there was already talk of building an east-west overpass. In the highway-obsessed era of the 1950s, the overpass was finally built as a six-lane monster.

One reason it is much taller than it needs to be today is that it originally ran above the railroad and elevated train bridges. In the 1980s, those train lines were switched to an underpass—the modern Southwest Corridor—and their bridges were destroyed. By then, the overpass had already lost its glamour, and possibly also its signage bearing Casey’s name.

But things were different in the 1950s. State Sen. John Collins—a JP resident and future Boston mayor—filed legislation to name the overpass in Casey’s honor for his years of “guiding the spiritual welfare of the people in the Forest Hills-Jamaica Plain district.”

Casey was born in Newburyport and entered the Catholic priesthood in 1896, serving in parishes in Malden and Holbrook. In 1918, the Archdiocese tapped him to head the new St. Andrew’s parish, which was carved out of JP’s St. Thomas Aquinas and Roslindale’s Sacred Heart. While the new parish church was erected at Walk Hill and Wachusett streets, Casey ran services in a hall on Hyde Park Avenue and lived in the first St. Andrew’s rectory on Asticou Road.

Services began at St. Andrew’s in 1921. The parish closed in 2000 and the complex, with its handsome stone church, is now home to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1926, Casey transferred to a Roxbury church, but returned to JP in 1935 as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas on South Street. He served there until his death in the church rectory. He is buried in Newburyport.

Casey’s Globe obituary described him as “beloved by people of all faiths as a scholar, churchman and builder.” A fan of both sports and books, Casey was especially known for his easygoing manner with children. According to one former parishioner, in his later years, Casey offered youths 10-cent tips to help him up from kneeling during Mass.

St. Andrew’s was a major development in its time, remains a Forest Hills landmark today, and is Casey’s most visible legacy. It remains to be seen whether his name will remain attached to the Arborway as it becomes a major development of our time, or whether history will pass him over.

Sources: Boston Globe archives; Gazette archives; Jamaica Plain Historical Society; Massachusetts Department of Transportation; rememberjamaicaplain.blogspot.com.