An 'expansive' and 'blessed' Chaplaincy Program comes to Lawrence

Read Special Section

In the heart of one of the most economically impoverished communities in the United States, the Chaplaincy Program of Lawrence Catholic Academy, a pre-K to grade eight school serving more than 450 students, is a gleaming model of commitment and engagement in chaplaincy. Led by Father Paul O'Brien, trustee of LCA, the program assigns each of seven chaplains to regularly attend religion classes of grades two to eight as well as to offer First Friday, Holy Day, Lenten, Advent, and faculty Masses and to hear confession at school during Lent and Advent.

One core element of this unusual program is the dedication of each chaplain to a particular grade with the understanding that he will continue to be associated with that same grade level each year. In this way, students come to know and learn from different clergy as they progress through the academically rigorous school, and clergy develop expertise in teaching at the particular grade level and increase their understanding of students' strengths and struggles.

"Having clergy regularly visit each classroom to provide substantial catechetical content is important as the priest or deacon is a major resource and can be relied upon to answer questions of doctrine and spiritual formation," explains Father O'Brien. Students whole-heartedly support the program. Grade-eight student Emma Castillo explains, "We have had questions about how the Church works, and we've been able to ask questions and get answers. I think both [the chaplains] and we are appreciative and cherish the time we spend together. We feel secure and honored by their presence in our classroom with our teacher and us."

Although this scale of chaplaincy programming is not common among elementary schools in the archdiocese and New England, it can be achievable and sustainable, depending on leadership and relationships with surrounding parishes. The LCA Chaplaincy Program includes six priests and one deacon, all of whom are affiliated with the three parishes actively connected with LCA: Fathers O'Brien (grade-eight chaplain) and Alonso Macias (grade three) are the pastor and parochial vicar, respectively, of St. Patrick Parish (Lawrence); Father Chris Casey (grade four) is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish (Lawrence and Methuen); Fathers Israel Rodriguez (grade six) and Leonardo Moreira (grade two) are pastor and parochial vicar, respectively, of St. Mary Parish (Lawrence); Father John Dello Russo, OSA, (grade five), serves at Merrimack College, and Deacon Fran Burke (grade seven) is a spiritual director. Fathers O'Brien, Casey, and Rodriguez serve ex-officio on the LCA board of trustees, and Deacon Burke chairs its mission effectiveness committee.

"When you see these young souls and help them get to know and grow in God," Father O'Brien says, "you can understand how life-altering this school and this expansive program can be for every single student." The unique long-ranging implications are abundantly clear to chaplains, faculty, and students alike. "By the time students have come through LCA, they'll have seven different priests and a deacon they know," Father Casey points out; "That's seven different priests and a deacon with whom they'll have had conversations -- and not just ones about a service they were performing or about where the student will be going to high school. This brings mutual respect and helps open up their faith in new ways."

"Very different from just having a priest visit a playground among teachers, parents, and students," Father Casey says, the Chaplaincy Program represents "quality time learning. I receive tons and tons of questions, such as 'What does death mean?', 'Why really do we do this or that in the liturgy?', 'Why do you wear this or that?', and 'Why does Simon, who helped Jesus carry the Cross, appear in only one Station?' (They certainly pay attention to detail!) By providing responses, we provide a foundation the students can build on. And the learning goes two ways: We learn about intellectual capacity and how to answer complex questions and help them."

Yet another mutual benefit is the exchange of viewpoints. Students learn to "see things from the priest's perspective -- it is super cool to see how they view them -- and they could see things from ours," observes Emma. Gabriella praises the exchanges on doctrine and faith that the Chaplaincy Program fosters, adding, "We see that priests and deacons are more than a formal title." The two classmates share big plans: both are eager to further their Catholic studies as they progress through high school, and while Emma wants to become "an advocate for my faith," Gabriella plans to "hopefully become an influence in the Church one day."

Among younger students, the idea of presence is paramount. "Rather than thinking of priests as appearing from afar, and in vestments, second graders make it clear," Father Moreira says, "that they appreciate being in the same room with a priest, asking questions and later remembering that a priest has been among them."

"One couldn't just pay to have a program like this," points out Principal Kelly. "It is a blessing to this special community and comes from the leadership of Father Paul and commitment of all the chaplains. In the world we live in, most teachers and students do not get to know even a single priest other than through brief exchanges after Mass," she continues; the program "offers a precious opportunity for the LCA community -- a blessing solidifying our mission."

Examples of innovative chaplaincy teaching abound. Striving to bring the Book of Exodus to life for grade-six students, for example, Father Rodriguez shares his experiences from the year he lived in the Holy Land. He speaks of his pilgrimages to Mount Sinai as well as Jordan, his work in a center for pilgrims, his studies of Hebrew, and classes with the Franciscans. "I try to be as sincere and authentic as possible with the students, and respond to the concrete and existential ideas echoing from them." Deacon Burke has asked grade-seven teachers and students to meet outdoors to consider the wondrousness of God's creations. Eighth grader Gabriella Potter recalls, "He would ask us to point to signs that show God is here and created this, and to reflect on and share what we see."

"If any other schools in the archdiocese or in New England have this number of clergy in their chaplaincy programs," says Father O'Brien, "they certainly are blessed. The world is upside down in so many ways, challenging our country on many levels. Yet a donor whom I recently brought to the school turned to me and said, 'You can tell every minute that the kids at this school are very happy -- I don't see a single student who looks miserable or entitled.' A school like this, one that stays open during a pandemic and helps 450 students grow in God with the guidance of dedicated faculty and clergy, is a source of hope."

The five elements of the Chaplaincy Program of Lawrence Catholic Academy

1. On a weekly basis, each chaplain visits his assigned grade's 30- to 45-minute religion classes; he leads discussions with teachers and their students on particular aspects of faith, Mass, sacraments, and the seasons of the Church. Once a month, each grade has an extended session to review a particular aspect of catechism.

2. For First Friday and Holy Days, the chaplains rotate in offering school-wide Masses.

3. For the five school days of each week of Lent, one or more chaplains offer an 8:30 a.m. Mass for grades three and four; five and six; or seven and eight cohorts.

4. During Lent and Advent, five to seven of the chaplains come to LCA to hear confessions.

5. Three times a year, all chaplains gather with faculty for discussion and then all join chaplains as they concelebrate Mass in the Chapel, which teachers and chaplains alike find deeply fulfilling.