Natick parish takes cinematic tack to evangelization

NATICK -- In meeting the challenge of evangelization in a noisy, media saturated culture, one Natick parish is promoting a film about faith. The congregation at St. Patrick Parish wants individuals, families and faith communities to be spiritually moved by an experience at the cinema.

However, “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” is far from a blockbuster. The independent film was created to “influence people for the Lord,” creators say. The story, set in the 1970s, follows three young boys as they learn how to deal with girls and bullies. Their mentor is an elderly gentleman, played by Gavin MacLeod, who uses the Gospel to teach them. MacLeod, of “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Love Boat” fame, said the film is the “most meaningful project” he has worked on.

Tens of thousands of people around the country have already seen the film, which opened in theaters Sept. 18. E-mails from director Rich Christiano to supporters boast that already moviegoers are reporting life-changing experiences. One woman said she had been praying for her husband to have a closer relationship with the Lord and after seeing the movie he wanted to read the Bible.

The film opens at the AMC Framingham on Oct. 9 and parishioners at St. Patrick’s hope it will bring people closer to God locally.

Parish catechist Rich Salvaggio said the movie is a family-friendly way to bring the Gospel message of love and forgiveness. It is rated PG and glorifies the name of Jesus, whereas so many movies are morally offensive, he added.

As a parent, Salvaggio said he is relieved to be able to view a movie with his children and not need to worry about it demeaning the values he wants to instill in their lives. In our society it is difficult even to rent an appropriate children’s movie, he said.

“It’s becoming more difficult to protect our children from what society brings into entertainment,” he said.

Salvaggio added that he takes seriously the “great responsibility” God has entrusted to him in being a father.

“My role as a parent is to take the values of the Church and the love God has given to me and relate that to my children,” he said.

Pastor Father Brian R. Kiely said that one of the problems in our culture is that media is fragmented, with some for children and some only for adults. “Jonathan Sperry” brings the young and the old together, he said.

“When you’re talking about faith, it crosses all age groups,” he said.

Father Kiely said he wants the film to be accessible to the whole parish and to communicate that “you can have fun being a Catholic.”

The parish will sponsor several events the day after the film’s opening in Framingham. On Oct. 10, the Right to Life group will host its Rosary on the Common at 1 p.m. and the Sunday vigil Mass will be held at 4 p.m. They will be followed by what organizers call “A Night at the Movies.”

Members of the youth group are reaching out to seniors who cannot drive by offering them rides. Thanks to an anonymous donor, half of the cost of tickets will be covered for parish families.

“If you want families to go, you have to make it affordable,” Father Kiely said.

“Jonathan Sperry” has been released in limited markets where churches like St. Patrick’s sponsor a theater. They put $2,000 upfront, then promote the movie and sell tickets. The first $2,000 in profits -- equal to 500 to 600 tickets -- goes directly back to the church. From there, 15 percent of any additional profit also benefits the church community. The movie will stay in theaters as long as enough tickets continue to sell.

So far St. Patrick’s is the only Catholic parish of the 300 churches nationwide that are promoting the film in this way. Already, the faithful at St. Patrick’s have reached out to more than 100 local Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches to help get the word out about the showing in Framingham.

The film has a unique marketing plan but appealing to churchgoers is not new for faith-based films. In 2004, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was previewed in churches. The 2007 pro-life film, “Bella,” reached out to the grassroots. “Fireproof,” about a fire-fighter who works to restore his marriage because of faith, was the top-grossing independent movie in 2008 in part because creators showed the movie in advance to pastors, asking for their support.

Rich Christiano -- “Jonathan Sperry’s” writer, director and producer -- told The Pilot that his movie has been screened for numerous pastoral conventions.

Christiano, who has been making Christian films since 1985, described this movie as a “1970s version of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”

“It’s going to touch your soul,” he said.

He added that media does powerfully influence people, and when the content is negative, it can degrade. Often, Christians complain about the messages sent by movies. Christiano said he wants to put forward positive content instead of lamenting the negative.

Christiano is confident that if people of faith are motivated to see something spiritually inspiring, that movie could beat “Titanic” at the box office. One-third of Americans go to church on Sunday, he notes.

He also asserts that movie theaters are not against showing faith-based films.

He said of theaters, “They just want to put people in the seats and sell popcorn.”

For more information about “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” visit