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Why we love our parish

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As banished children of Eve, we lament our parish being idle. We walk around to visit it and see crumbling stairs, erupting concrete, but she stands tall.

Kevin and Marilyn
Ryan

Pope Francis declared a Detroit church as a basilica -- a rare honor for U.S. churches. Ste. Anne Parish began in 1700 and is the second oldest running Catholic parish in the country. Its current church was built in 1886. Our parish in Chestnut Hill dates to 1898, so we aren't likely to gain such a lofty designation.

As banished children of Eve, we lament our parish being idle. We walk around to visit it and see crumbling stairs, erupting concrete, but she stands tall.

Returning to Ste. Anne's Detroit, the parish documented extensive data to meet the criteria for becoming a Minor Basilica. Most notable, its liturgical activity and architectural stature.

St. Lawrence Church is far less well-known than Ste. Anne's. Our parish was designed by Franz Joseph Untersee, a Swiss American architect, who also drew the plans for St. Anthony Church, Brighton, and probably most noteworthy today, the Brookline bank building, currently used as a marijuana dispensary. It is sometimes said our church was built for or by the Irish help in Chestnut Hill -- their trust fund.

St. Lawrence's structure reminds us of Norman France, with dark wooden beams, traditional leaded stained-glass windows and a Gothic spire. Surely, we are close to being a national landmark. Once, at least in Europe, a traveler could orient him or herself by finding the tallest spire in town, which was a church. Now, gleaming skyscrapers have overtaken the landscape. Not only is it difficult to locate a spire today, it is often hard to find anyone on the street who can identify a church. We are centrally located on Boylston Street, near the fire station and medical offices. Given this site, you would guess it is widely known. But we often hear even from Catholics we know: "Where is St. Lawrence and wasn't it closed?" Once again, we patiently explain that they probably pass it at least weekly, if not more often, going into Boston. Yet, given the parking is in the rear, via a short road, across from the fire station, it is often overlooked.

While this beautiful church is our parish home, we could use a greater attendance -- a criterion for basilica designation. Some folks are still able to claim their baptism, marriage and sometime in the future, funeral, at St. Lawrence, but many are newly arrived or here for grad school.

Now to our corporal strength -- our parishioners. If these are chaotic times, we rely on our parish community all the more. Small in numbers, we are high in seniors, so our attendance fluctuates. Seniors escape shoveling snow in favor of sunny Florida or a cruise ship. Given this reality, everyone has to step up to the plate. If no one has risen to bring the gifts, six or so leap up to assist.

No Saturday dances take place in the parish basement like the Golden Age of the 1950s, but small gestures are warranted. Preparing food for coffee hour, collecting small bills in a glass jar for purchasing staples, and making certain old linoleum floors pass health inspection are all important. Twice a month, we gather to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (as long as the bread lasts) in the basement (with linoleum floors) to be brought by a volunteer family to St. Francis House, a Boston shelter for the homeless.

Other common parish activities rely on volunteers. The Thanksgiving dinner menu signup begins early in November, so if you are going to be away, you can still provide items. The Christmas bulletin board shows the requests of children living in shelters. Take a label from its pin and bring gifts unwrapped so the mothers can wrap them.

Our choirmaster (a volunteer) sends a weekly email to bring us up to date on illnesses, births, a reflection on the upcoming liturgy and other news. Music is our best prayer. In keeping with the liturgical calendar, there is a good deal of 19th century Charles Wesley music we sing because we grew up learning the words. Occasionally, when warranted, it can be added a harp, drums or flute. A sprinkling of Latin is incorporated to educate the young.

If you like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, we have the miracle of attendees. As we arrive none too early for 9 a.m. Mass, we think, "Oh dear, there are so few here." But by the time the liturgy is underway and it's time for Communion, a bonanza of parishioners has joined us.

This is no in-and-out congregation. Folks cluster and catch up with each other. The apple of our parish's eye is the O'Neil family. From Ireland, the parents have four Ethiopian children. Their family business is a series of grub pubs, all sparkling clean. One is the Squealing Pig in Mission Hill, where the medical people like to meet. The children, so devout, are altar servers and readers. During the Covid-19 quarantine, the O'Neill children assisted our pastor, Father Jonathan Gaspar, at St. Mary's Brookline for Easter Mass.

Empty churches and a rainy St. Peter's Square seemed appropriate for this Lent. But we are all eager to join together in our parishes when they reopen. We miss the warmth of our parishioners and the traditional beauty of our church. Until the day the doors are opened, we will take a turn around the parking lot and check on the tulips planted by the Redemptoris Mater seminarians next door.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.



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