The Chaplain is in the House

It’s one of those little-discussed State House mysteries: Why does the House of Representatives have a chaplain who starts each day’s session with a prayer, while the Senate has no regular cleric and rarely prays together? Are representatives more spiritual than their senatorial counterparts? Or does the House simply require more divine inspiration–or intervention–than the Senate?

The Rev. Robert F. Quinn, a Catholic priest, offers the prayer each time the House convenes, and has since 1983. Originally appointed by then-House Speaker Thomas McGee, he was re-appointed chaplain for the 1997-98 and 1999-00 sessions by Speaker Thomas Finneran.

Tall and thin, with wisps of white hair, Quinn lives around the corner from the State House on Beacon Hill. He usually strides into the House chamber a few minutes before legislators and waits in one of the large leather chairs on the rostrum. Once Finneran or another member of the leadership team calls the House to order, Rev. Quinn stands at the podium and reads a prayer–typically asking for wisdom and guidance–in his deep, sometimes scratchy voice. In a minute or two, he is done, and leaves. He is paid $17,950 a year, according to the state budget.

After conferring with Finneran’s office, Quinn declined CommonWealth‘s request for a brief interview about his background and duties. Finneran spokesman Kevin O’Leary did not return repeated phone calls about the position over several weeks.

The tradition of legislative chaplains dates back to the earliest days of the Commonwealth, when the Legislature first met in 1780. Rules governing procedure in each chamber call for the House Speaker and the Senate President to appoint a chaplain at the beginning of each legislative session.

However, the Senate rule has been suspended since 1980, the year after a longtime chaplain, the Rev. Christopher P. Griffin, retired, and a time when the Senate reduced the number of formal sessions it conducted. Then-Senate President William Bulger opted not to fill the position, instead bringing in guest chaplains when needed.

Today Senate President Thomas Birmingham is simply continuing the custom that was in place when he was elected, said his press secretary, Alison Franklin. “This is how it’s always been since he’s been in the Senate and this is how he’s been comfortable,” she said. “He hasn’t gotten any comments or criticisms or requests for changes.”

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Still, the Senate is not completely devoid of prayer. Birmingham does ask a priest to give an invocation every two years at the beginning of the legislative term. The Rev. Edward F. Boyle, executive secretary and chaplain of the Labor Guild of the Boston Archdiocese, had the honor this year.

Before his invocation, Rev. Boyle gave a brief history lesson, pointing out that Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents of legislators seeking heavenly guidance. Franklin suggested that the framers of the U.S. Constitution in Philadephia in 1787 hold morning prayers “imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation.” Franklin, according to Boyle, was reputed to have told the gathering, “We said prayers when we were fighting the British and divine Providence came to protect us and help us in battle. Now that we’re in this task, I think that we should call upon the same divine power for protection.”