First parish closed in reconfiguration process

MEDFORD — Sacred Heart Parish’s final Mass before closing was, in many ways, like a normal Sunday Mass. It was at the usual time with music, prayer and plenty of noisy children, oblivious of the significance. One boy was banging on a folding chair while a second crawled under them. The elements were all the same, but on July 25 it was obvious that parishioners were already feeling a sense of loss. People cried, took pictures and hugged each other.

The small church, the first to be closed as part of the archdiocese’s recon-figuration process, held 500 people July 25. School desks and folding chairs were set up in the back, behind the rows of pews. On a normal Sunday, around 200 people attend the 11 a.m. Mass, and about 600 people total attend Mass at the church on a typical Sunday.

Sacred Heart’s pastor, Father Robert J. Doherty, decided to make the final Mass “like an Irish wake” with the first part dedicated to letting go and the second dedicated to the celebration of life. In his homily, he spoke of pain and sadness but urged parishioners to take their happy memories to their new parishes.

"There are many memories we hold close to our hearts," he said.

After Communion, medallions and fliers — both depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus — were handed out. On the back of the fliers Father Doherty left this message, “May the Peace of the Lord remain with you and your family today, tomorrow and forever.”

Father Doherty will be headed to St. John Parish in Beverly for at least the next four months and some parishioners plan to follow him. Linda Penta, a parishioner for the last five years, is one of them. She compared Father Doherty to the trunk of a tree, always reaching out to others. “He’s a good friend and a friend to everyone,” she said. “He doesn’t discriminate.”

Penta has been inspired by the people she has met at Sacred Heart, especially Father Doherty. He helped her come to terms with her diagnosis of breast cancer three years ago.

"This has been my lifeline." She has been in remission for over two years thanks to the strength of the people from Sacred Heart who helped her to stay strong, she said.

Linda Penta’s husband, city councilor Bob Penta, spoke after the Mass, thanking Father Doherty for helping parishioners cope with the closing of a chapter in their lives. “You certainly gave us a good chapter in our lives,” he said and the congregation gave Father Doherty one of three standing ovations.

Jack Coakley, the vice chair of parish council and parishioner for nine years, also addressed the congregation after Mass. As he spoke and recounted good memories of Father Doherty, his eyes filled with tears. Someone handed him a facial tissue and after a pause he was able to continue.

"I'm going to take my memories with me, and I want you to take yours with you," he said.

Father Robert Kickham, a secretary for Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley, brought a message of gratitude for the people of Sacred Heart from the archbishop. Father Kickham also praised Father Doherty while expressing condolences.

Addressing parishioners, Father Kickham recalled that six years ago he attended the closing Mass for his own home parish, St. Aidan in Brookline.

"It was the church that was home to my family as long as we could remember," he said. "This loss is unique to you, but I do have a sense of what you are going through."

The loss is about the family of people who attend Sacred Heart, said Janice Smith, liturgy coordinator for the last six years.

"Where do we meet again?" she said. "That's the loss: the uncertainty."

Sal Yerardi, who has attended the church for 42 years said that, while he is glad other parishes will stay open, he does not feel Sacred Heart should close. He feels the archdiocese has handled its financial difficulties poorly.

"We're getting persecuted for their sins," Yerardi said.

Long-time parishioner Frank Aronno has anticipated church closings since the early 1970s. “It hasn’t been something that came overnight,” he said.

Aronno remembers when they dug the hole for the foundation of Sacred Heart. The lot was a baseball field that the mayor of Boston sold because balls were breaking neighborhood windows. The church opened in 1939.

"Everyone went to church at that time," said Aronno.

One of the main problems today, he said, is that children grow up and leave the Church and only come back to buried or married.

“I’m just devastated,” said Elaine Rumrill, a parishioner for 57 years. “It just doesn’t seem real.”

Rumrill and her friend Kathleen Beebee cried throughout the Mass.

"I couldn't stop crying," said Beebee who has attended Sacred Heart for about 25 years. "It's like a death."

Beebee runs three mornings a week and Saturdays, stopping in the church every morning she runs by. Last Saturday the rain was pouring when she sought shelter at Sacred Heart, aware that it would be her last morning visit. She spoke with her friends. “People are just so beautiful,” she said.

Even though she will miss the people at Sacred Heart, Beebee knows she will find a new place to worship. “I’ll find a home,” she said. “I’m sure.”