Historic monstrance to come home to Lowell for Eucharistic Congress

LOWELL -- After changing hands and parishes multiple times over recent decades, a century-old monstrance will return to its hometown of Lowell -- just in time to be used in the archdiocese's Jesus is Here Eucharistic Congress in June.

The monstrance in question was made in 1905 as a gift from a lay organization, the Guild of the Sacred Heart, to St. Peter Parish in Lowell. Standing at almost four feet tall, it is decorated with numerous Christological symbols, including vines and grapes, a pelican piercing its breast, and the Lamb of God holding a flag of victory. Figures of the four evangelists decorate the base. Saints around the container for the Eucharist include the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Anne, and St. Gregory.

The most recent custodian of the monstrance was Father Bill Schmidt, the parochial vicar of St. John the Evangelist Parish and Holy Rosary Parish in Winthrop. He reached out to the archdiocese about giving the monstrance to St. Patrick Parish in Lowell and possibly using it in the upcoming Eucharistic Congress, which will take place at the Tsongas Center on June 18 and conclude with a Eucharistic procession ending at St. Patrick's.

Tom Lyman, the archdiocese's coordinator of divine worship, said giving the monstrance to the parish was "a wonderful gesture on the part of Father Bill Schmidt, who has taken such good care of it all these years and used it and brought Jesus to the people of God wherever he was with it, as have all these other priests who made this special effort to conserve this wonderful work of liturgical art."

An inscription on the monstrance indicates the date it was presented -- June 30, 1905 -- but does not cite the occasion for which it was made. Father Schmidt had theorized that it may have been for the feast of Corpus Christi.

When St. Peter's in Lowell closed in the 1990s, the pastor at the time, Father William Walsh, not wanting the monstrance to be lost or discarded in the transition, took it with him to his next assignment at St. Peter's in Cambridge.

Before he died of cancer, Father Walsh asked Father George Vartzelis to take responsibility for the monstrance. Father Vartzelis used it at St. James the Greater Parish in Wellesley, where he was pastor. St. James Parish closed in the mid-2000s.

When Father Vartzelis retired, he began helping out at St. Patrick Parish in Stoneham, where Father Schmidt was the pastor. Father Vartzelis entrusted the monstrance to Father Schmidt's care before entering Regina Cleri. Father Schmidt then took the monstrance with him when he was transferred to St. Mary Parish, Wrentham, and St. Martha Parish, Plainville, in 2012.

When Father Schmidt heard that the archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress would take place in Lowell, he thought it would be the perfect opportunity to return the monstrance to its home city.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't this be an incredible way to get this monstrance back where it belongs?'" he said.

He contacted the archdiocese and proposed that the monstrance be used during the congress and then remain at St. Patrick Parish.

"This could have a healing effect, make the people of Lowell who are hosting this Eucharistic Congress very proud of their heritage," Father Schmidt said.

He said he thinks it will bring the people of Lowell "a sense of their forebears."

"I'm assuming in 1905 that would have been a huge sacrifice of people in a parish guild to present a gift like that to the parish. So, it's born out of the sacrifice of immigrants at that time," who were primarily Irish, German, and French, he said.

Lyman spoke similarly, noting that the parishioners did not live in a wealthy area.

"These are people that worked in Lowell and gave their very best to give glory to God and to nourish the faithful in the Sacrament of the Eucharist with this monstrance," Lyman said.

He said the faithful of today can learn from their example.

"The sacrifice of prior generations to do something beautiful for God that also would serve his people is worth noting and remembering. It's important for us to remember that, in terms of what we do with our own financial resources today, do we think of the way in which our own giving to the Church, even something like sacred art, can nourish both ourselves and future generations. It's one of the means of passing on the faith and handing on what we have received," Lyman said.

He said he thinks it would be fitting to pray for the souls of those who donated the monstrance.

Father Schmidt said he hopes that Lowell's pastors will see the monstrance as a gift to the city, not just St. Patrick Parish, and that they will use it for special occasions.

"Even though the St. Peter's parishioners were greatly hurt by losing their own parish, one thing stays constant, and that's Jesus, especially in the Eucharist. So, this is a way of accentuating that, and maybe as the monstrance is used, they would see their connection to all the times the Eucharist was celebrated at St. Peter Parish," Father Schmidt said.

He said he thinks that Father Vartzelis, who passed the monstrance on to him and died of COVID-19 two years ago, would approve of the monstrance coming back to Lowell.

"I'm sure he, too, would be very pleased," Father Schmidt said.