Surviving the pain of parish closure

LAWRENCE — As the Archdiocese of Boston begins the process of parish reconfiguration, many find the prospect of their parish closing unimaginable. But there are those who have already experienced this reality and have found that their faith, though tested, can survive this painful trial.

“It’s always hard when you’ve gone to a certain church your whole life — have been married there, been baptized there — and you have to see it close. It’s hard. You adjust to it, but it’s hard,” mused Lawrence resident Ray Carver.

Carver, 67, experienced the pain of parish closure first-hand. Eighteen months ago, he looked on sadly as the doors of St. Francis Church were closed for the final time. “It was heartbreaking. That church had been there for almost 100 years,” he said.

St. Francis Church was founded in 1903 to cater to the spiritual needs of the Lithuanian Catholic community in Lawrence. Carver himself had been baptized, confirmed, married and had baptized his four children at the Lithuanian church.

Over the years he and his wife, Irene, had served St. Francis in a variety of ways including being active in the Third Order of St. Francis, the Holy Name Society and serving as Eucharistic Ministers.

However, despite the pain, the closing of their beloved parish did not crush their faith.

“To me [this experience] has been like that of a pitcher who played for the Red Sox and gets traded. He has to get used to the trade but he never forgets where he’s been. That’s how my wife and I feel — we’ll never forget our past, especially since it’s been such a good one,” he said.

“Every time I go by the property of St. Francis, the memories are still there,” acknowledged Jerome Jozak, another former parishioner of St. Francis. “It’s a very, very difficult personal loss.”

Much like Carver, Jozak was very involved in his parish, serving on both the parish council and the finance council, volunteering as an usher and collector and chairing numerous special events.

“St. Francis was like one big family,” he fondly reminisced. “The closing of St. Francis was like a death in the family.”

That loss has led many of the former parishioners of St. Francis to feel like “wandering gypsies in the desert,” without any parish to call home, according to Jozak.

“I’ve seen a lot of people who have just lost their faith because their sense of community was pried away from them,” he admitted. “A lot of people are still searching.”

Although Jozak still mourns the loss of his lifelong parish, he feels he has begun to move on. “The hurt is still there,” he said, “but you just have to pick up the pieces and move on.”

For both Jozak and the Carvers, moving on has meant attending nearby Holy Rosary Church in Lawrence. Holy Rosary had invited all former St. Francis parishioners to join their fold when St. Francis closed on July 2002.

In order to help the new parishioners feel welcome Holy Rosary pastor, Father James Ronan, set up a Parish Advisory Council nearly eight months prior to the closure of St. Francis. “I wanted to make sure we could address all the issues, the anger, the anguish that would come with this process,” he explained.

“Father Ronan was very kind and very gentle and supportive,” stated Carver. “He really went out of his way to make everyone feel welcome.”

Jozak, 54, recalled that the first time he went to Mass at Holy Rosary was the first time in his entire life he had ever attended Mass outside his home parish.

“It was a very strange feeling,” he said, “but then some parishioners welcomed me warmly, and it kind of made you feel good.  The clergy and the people really went out of their way to make people feel comfortable.”

The final Mass celebrated at St. Francis aptly illustrated the spirit of welcoming that Father Ronan wanted to ensure St. Francis parishioners would feel.

Following the Mass, which Merrimack Regional Bishop Emilio Allue celebrated, Father Ronan ceremoniously led a procession to Holy Rosary.

“We ritualized the closing of the church.  Members of the congregation carried out the Lithuanian books, candles, candleholders, beautiful altar cloths and six men carried out the altar itself,” said Father Ronan. These were transported in a procession to Holy Rosary Church where they were fixed in the lower church.

“It struck everyone how much it really was like a funeral or a wake,” recalled Father Ronan.

“The closing of a parish is painful, difficult, fraught with grief — there’s nothing can be done to avoid that, but God’s goodness and faithfulness continues to thrive even in this difficult situation,” he commented.

“When your parish closes, it is an invitation either to turn inward and grieve exclusively or to turn outward and find that God does not abandon his people even in difficult times,” Father Ronan said, noting that the union of the two parishes has given rise to “opportunities for new experiences of Church, new experiences of worship, new experiences of grace.”

“The more we trust in God at testing moments like this, the more these painful moments can be transformed into moments of grace,” he added.