Connecting parish and mission -- a St. James story

Father John O’Leary (second from left) stands outside of San Martin de Porres Church in Peru in 2004 with visitors from the sister parish of Immaculate Conception in Easthampton. Courtesy photo

Whenever stories from the mission fields are told, people at home often ask how they can get more closely involved in the great work of bringing souls to Christ. This is how a parish priest and some dedicated lay people of Immaculate Conception Parish in Easthampton, Mass. made a difference.

It started with a sermon by the St. James Society’s visiting Father Frank Fairbairn of Boston, now deceased, who described how his mission chapel, which could scarcely fit 100 worshippers, had to serve the needs of 50,000 people in his parish. The little church in Villa El Salvador is home to Peru’s poor from the mountains, the jungle and the coast, struggling to make a new start.

Well, something had to be done about that! So a newly organized mission committee of laymen led by John Sheehan met with their pastor, Father Richard Runte, and decided to get seriously involved both spiritually and in a material way. It began with a Mass when Catholics in Lima and Catholics in Easthampton lit a candle and prayed for each other. That was followed by a voluntary collection at Immaculate Conception that raised over $1,000 each month. It also raised real excitement over the new project.

Three years later, enough money was raised for a groundbreaking. As you might expect, a delegation from Easthampton flew down to participate. During the Mass, the visitors from Massachusetts were moved to tears when the Peruvian congregation, at the sign of peace, left their seats to hug and kiss each of their American benefactors in gratitude rather than just waving or shaking hands.

In 2004, Father John O’Leary, the new pastor and regional coordinator of Peru, invited another delegation from Immaculate Conception to come again -- this time to participate in the blessing of their newly built sister Church of San Martin de Porres, which was twice the size of their own Easthampton parish. Father O’Leary reports that the support from Immaculate Conception continues. With that financial support and the help of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the parish now features an active elderly clinic, a youth center, and food kitchens for the needy. All of this because a group of laymen and a parish priest reached out to help.

Immaculate Conception is not alone. There are other parishes that do the same thing. Missionaries call it “twinning,” but whatever name you choose, the parishioners of Immaculate Conception can attest to being a stronger community by virtue of becoming a mission church. Meanwhile, the priests of the St. James Society have become intermediaries between the people they serve on the missions and the people who support them here at home.

Frank Mazzaglia is a columnist and a layman associated with the Society of St. James.

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