Charlestown says goodbye to its pastors

BRAINTREE -- The parishes in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston will be saying goodbye to their pastors this month.

The two priests, Father Daniel J. Mahoney of St. Francis de Sales Parish and Father James J. Ronan of St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena Parish, have been a fixture in Charlestown. Their retirements will mean new leadership for the parishes.

A Haverhill native, Father Daniel Mahoney has been pastor of St. Francis de Sales since he was first appointed on June 1, 1978, by Humberto Cardinal Medeiros. During the intervening 44 years, he has become as much a fixture in the parish as the church with the gold cross is.

In addition to his assignment as pastor of the parish, since 1991, he has been the "pastor" of the Boston Fire Department. For more than three decades, he has been with firefighters across the Hub not only when seen at fires but also when unseen at times of celebration for their families and also of sadness at funerals. It would be safe to borrow those words from a wedding ceremony, "in good times and in bad; in sickness and in health," to describe his ministry to the firefighters, their families, and friends.

He has celebrated baptisms of children and grandchildren; marriages of firefighters and their siblings and children; been at bedsides with the consolation of the anointing of the sick; and celebrated too many funerals of those who have died in the line of duty or those who have died after years of well-earned retirement.

In his four-and-a-half decades as pastor of St. Francis, he has seen dramatic shifts and changes in Charlestown. When he arrived, school busing was still a source of controversy. The parish school was still enrolling students as it had for several generations. Demographic shifts were happening and, eventually, the school population declined, which resulted in its closing.

Under Father Dan's leadership, the parish, at times struggling, continued to serve the needs of both long-time and new parishioners alike. Some "Townies" moved out, others stayed. New folks moved in. Soon, Charlestown became one of the most sought-after places to live. The shifts sent property prices skyrocketing and the access both to the Financial District and Government Center made living there most desirable.

The proximity to Interstate 93 and U.S. Route 1 added to its desirability. You could be out of the city quickly and get to second homes on the North Shore or in Maine or New Hampshire within an hour; and a little bit more for the South Shore and Cape Cod. The commuters changed the face of Charlestown and its parishes. Yet, Father Mahoney was there through it all.

Meanwhile, down the hill was St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena. The parish came into existence in 2006 by the merger of St. Mary, the mother parish of Charlestown and the oldest of the three parishes, and St. Catherine of Siena, the youngest. This merger was ably concluded by Father James J. Ronan, who had been the pastor of the two parishes since his arrival from Lawrence in 2004.

This merger brought together two very different parishes. St. Catherine took in the projects on the Mystic River and some of the poorer residents of Charlestown. There were also many new people, not the well-heeled of the gentrified sections of St. Mary, but the new arrivals to the U.S.

One way that Father Rvonan helped this merger of the diverse communities was to have bilingual liturgies at St. Mary Church. When the church at St. Catherine was closed, a new chapel was created at St. Mary and named in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.

Father Ronan has also created a new Good Shepherd School, which serves preschool children from the neighborhood. The school is well attended and has been a success story for the parish.

Each parish has served its parishioners well. Each pastor has been the reason for that service.

Goodbyes are never easy -- whether for parishioners or pastors. Both of Charlestown's pastors have been "beacons" in their parishes. The length of each priest's assignment is an indication of each of their different gifts and talents, but also of the respect and esteem each has earned over his tenure.

Change is always a challenge for all involved. Both Father Mahoney and Father Ronan have made enormous contributions towards the parishioners and the people of Charlestown. They have built on the foundations they inherited, and are handing on to new leadership parishes greatly changed but also ready for new challenges.