Four years in the making, ’Scenes From a Parish’ to be seen on PBS

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Four years in the making, the documentary "Scenes From a Parish" is finally hitting the small screen.

"Scenes From a Parish," which chronicles life in the mid-2000s at St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Mass., will be seen on PBS as part of its "Independent Lens" series of independent features. It is scheduled to be shown Tuesday, Dec. 29, 10:11:30 p.m. EST (check local listings for airdates and times).

"When I started out I thought it was going to be a year in the life of a parish," said James Rutenbeck, the director, co-producer and co-writer, in a Dec. 5 telephone interview with Catholic News Service from Boston.

"As I spent more time there and got to know people there more closely, I got to realize that it was going to take more time," he said. "And the approach of the film is to follow these stories and allow them to unfold sort of organically as they happen. It's an observational film. It takes extra time for these lives to play out in these ways."

Four years only includes the on-site filming. It doesn't include the year of negotiations with the Archdiocese of Boston to get permission to film.

Rutenbeck, a Catholic, said he spent so much time at St. Patrick he feels like a member of the parish. (He worships at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church near Boston.)

"My faith experience led me to a point where I wanted to interact with people that I would not have known, like new immigrants and people struggling at the margins," he said. "With people on issues about Boston or society or race, I felt really disconnected with the lives of people who are struggling in some way or are somehow on the margins. That's in my Catholic faith, and that's what motivated me to make the film."

Lawrence is a hardscrabble mill town north of Boston that seems untouched by the headier economic times earlier this decade. The parish covers a territory that has 15,000 Catholics out of a general population of 19,000, according to Father Paul O'Brien, the pastor.

He said that parish is about 40 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent "other" -- including a Vietnamese population not seen in "Scenes."

Father O'Brien, in a Dec. 5 telephone interview from Lawrence, said he has seen the documentary several times and still enjoys watching it each time around. "I'm amazed that James is so gifted," he said.

With four years of filming, "Scenes" covers significant changes in the parish. One such change was the construction of the Cor Unum Meal Center, which took two years to build. Some of the construction costs were financed through proceeds from the sales of "Labels Are for Jars" T-shirts, which has generated $2 million over the past five years, according to Father O'Brien.

"You look at the press conference announcing the construction project and there are all these empty chairs," Father O'Brien told CNS, referring to one scene in the documentary. "But when it opens up, all the media are there, because we've got a celebrity."

He was referring to "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, a Harvard classmate of Father O'Brien but no relation. "We figured out that we grew up in parishes next door to each other" and later lived in the same house on the Harvard campus, Father O'Brien said.

The funnyman is on the board of the Labels Are for Jars organization, which manages the T-shirt sales. The goal of the T-shirts, besides raising money, is to discourage societal labels. On the front of the shirts are labels such as "troubled teen," "slacker" and "rock star" and on the back is the "Labels Are for Jars" logo.

Cor Unum, according to the documentary, serves 100,000 meals a year. The priest said that number is now up to 200,000, all done on an annual budget of $200,000 and only one paid staffer. "We think we've established a model for others that provides enough fresh food to feed families at a very low cost," he added.

But "Scenes From a Parish" is less about events than it is about people, whose lives revolve around the gravitational pull of the parish.

One such story was about Theresa Sentell, a down-on-her-luck woman with a history of substance abuse, and Peggy Olivetto of the parish's Christian Outreach Committee.

"There were things that were going on with characters that were somewhat mysterious at times," Rutenbeck said. "Peggy Olivetto befriends her (Theresa) and tries to help her, but then at a certain point Theresa exploits Peggy's kindness and lies to her and betrays her."

The personal stories don't have definitive conclusions, but most are resolved before "Scenes From a Parish" fades to its closing credits.