'We make it work' -- Lawrence parish rallies to keep up activities after fire

LAWRENCE -- The people of Corpus Christi Parish at Holy Rosary Church understand the importance of having a place designated for prayer and worship. After a fire destroyed the rectory and damaged the church and parish offices, they took it upon themselves to transform their parish center into a temporary worship space, sustained by gratitude for what they have and willingness to help their community.

The parish rectory was destroyed by a fire on Feb. 22. The only resident, pastor Father Francis Mawn, escaped unharmed, and firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to the attached church. However, the upper church suffered smoke damage, and runoff water flooded the lower church.

At the time, Lawrence was in the "red zone" with high rates of coronavirus cases. A great deal of effort was already being made just to keep the church open and follow pandemic regulations.

Susan Witham, a lector and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist in the parish, called the combination of the pandemic and the fire a "double whammy."

"It was a big effort to get it all ready for COVID, and then the fire came," she said in a June interview.

Situated on the same block as the church and rectory are the parish center, where they hold Sunday school, and the headquarters of the St. Alfio Society, which plans the annual feast of Three Saints.

The day after the fire, the decision was made to utilize the parish hall as a space for worship until they could return to the church. Although they did not put out an organized call for help, parishioners readily volunteered to move furniture or provide supplies or decorations.

"We knew we were going to be there for a while, so we tried to make it as comfortable for everybody as possible," Witham said.

A crucifix hanging in the parish hall served as a point of reference around which to set up the other features. A tabernacle used on Holy Thursday was placed underneath. Father Patrick Armano, who helps at the parish on Sundays, procured an altar. Chairs were set up in lieu of pews, with one side arranged to allow social distancing; they can easily be pushed together if families come. Pictures of the Stations of the Cross were purchased, framed, and hung along the wall. Plants, statues, and portraits of saints were set up to beautify the space.

"For the first few weeks, we just kept adding to it just to make it less of the parish center, where we had our dinners and our socials, and make it more churchlike," Witham said.

They salvaged some items, such as the paschal candle, from the upper church. Everything else left over after the fire was packaged, labeled, and stored in a warehouse. The St. Rita Sodality later retrieved a statue of their patron to use on her feast day in May. The statue had fallen and lost some fingers in the flooding, but they covered her hands with a bouquet of flowers for the celebration.

Partitions were set up to make a temporary sacristy in the parish center, next to a closet that provided storage room for vestments.

"They were very creative when it came to things like the sacristy and such," Witham said.

The parish was unable to celebrate the usual midday Mass in the days immediately following the fire, but they set up the parish hall in time to celebrate Mass the following weekend. They also continued to livestream each Mass online for those unable to come in person.

"It's a blessing that we still are here," Pedro Cosme said. He and his wife run a weekly rosary group, which continued to meet virtually during the pandemic.

He called the parish volunteers "soldiers," and expressed gratitude to Father Mawn "for all he does."

"He continued to open this church because we don't want to scatter," Cosme said.

In addition to the basic supplies and visual decorations, music has also continued as a feature of the parish's liturgy and ministry. The electric piano was carried down from the church's choir loft and set up with microphones on a platform in the back of the parish hall.

"We never had a day without music," Witham said.

The hall has been used not only for typical weekend and daily Masses but also for special occasions in the life of the community. Families have chosen to hold baptisms and funerals there, despite the availability of other nearby churches. When Bishop Robert F. Hennessey came to celebrate Confirmations in the spring, he was amazed by what they had done, even supplying the holy oils.

While the main hall is used as a sanctuary, other parts of the building are used for administration and religious education. Ivette Chakar, the parish secretary, has been working out of a temporary office, outfitted with a small coffee station and shelves of materials for religious education. The same room doubles as a confessional on the weekends.

"We make it work. It's a challenge, but we're getting there," Chakar said.

After losing his residence and all his possessions in the fire, Father Mawn found accommodations at the nearby St. Mary of the Assumption Parish.

Speaking to The Pilot after celebrating the daily Mass on June 29, he commended the parishioners' transformation of the parish hall.

"They did a nice job making it into a church. It's very bright, very comfortable. But we want to get back to the main church as soon as possible," he said.

As of print time, plans are underway for returning the church building to use.