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Archbishop reaches out to closing parishes

By Christine Tolfree
Posted: 9/17/2004

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In efforts to reach out to grieving parishioners who face parish closings Archbishop Seán O’Malley has visited around 10 parishes since May 25 when the parish suppressions were announced, said Father Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Some of the visits resulted from previously scheduled events, but he visited two last week — St. Peter Parish in South Boston on Sept. 8 and Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton on Sept. 10 — because of invitations sent after May 25.

The archbishop cannot visit all 82 closing parishes but plans to visit as many as he can, said Father Coyne. The archbishop wants to pray with them, listen to their concerns and help them understand reconfiguration, he added. But many parishioners remain hopeful that the archbishop will change his mind and their parishes will remain open.

Along with five priests, the archbishop concelebrated an evening Mass with the people of Mary Immaculate. Around 400 people attend Sunday Masses at the 134-year-old church, but over 550 people crowded this Mass, leaving standing room only. Although Mary Immaculate, the first church built in Newton, is on the list for closure, the official decree and closure date have not been released.

Archbishop O’Malley began his homily by thanking parishioners for inviting him and went on to talk about blindness to our own limitations.

"The path to God really begins when we begin to understand our own sinfulness and when we begin to understand how much our God loves us in spite of our sinfulness," he said.

We need “the light of faith” to know God, ourselves and what we are supposed to do. We need faith to see through God’s eyes because “appearances so often deceive us,” he said.

People of faith have a duty to share that faith with others, he added.

"We're here today celebrating the Eucharist because someone took the time to teach us about God," he said.

Archbishop O’Malley also addressed reconfiguration and stressed its importance in the mission of the Church in Boston.

"We ask God to give us that clear vision of faith that God has entrusted to us at this moment in our history as his people here in the Archdiocese of Boston. The reconfiguration of parishes is a very painful process, but it is to help us fulfill our mission in the future," he said.

God is asking sacrifice from parishioners of closing churches now in order to create a better, stronger Church for future generations, he said.

"We pray the Lord will strengthen us, strengthen our faith, so that we will be able to help each other on this journey, so that we will be in a position to pass our faith on to others," he said. "Christ needs us to be long-distance runners who persevere through every obstacle."

The archbishop illustrated his point by talking about a dog chasing a rabbit.

"When other dogs see the dog running and hear the barking, they begin to run and bark too, but only the dog that keeps his eye on the rabbit will persevere," he said.

The dogs that focus on the running and the barking will lose sight of the rabbit, he added.

Catholics in Boston must keep their eyes on Christ in order to persevere over the reconfiguration process, he said. Then they will see God’s love for them and His presence in their lives, community and church.

But many Mary Immaculate parishioners still said they hoped the archbishop would change his mind about the closing of their parish.

"We're hoping it's not closing. We're hoping there's no date," said Karen Osborn, a parishioner for all 43 years of her life. "I pray that he's [the archbishop] going to see the light."

Osborn is one of eight children who grew up in the church. She was married there and one of her sisters will be married there on Oct. 2. The church is the “heartbeat” of a strong community, she said.

Many parishioners wore green ribbons pinned to their shirts, and the ribbons were placed around the necks of statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. A box with the ribbons sat on a table in the front of the church with a sign that said, “Green is the color of hope. Keep hope alive. Wear a green ribbon for our parish.”

A sign on a bulletin board near the table listed ten ways to save Mary Immaculate, including attending events, keeping the church clean and praying. Number 10 read, “Go to Mass with Bishop Sean on Friday night, Sept. 10 at 7:00 p.m.”

Maryanne Mendolia, a life-long parishioner of 68 years, said she is glad Archbishop O’Malley came to Mary Immaculate.

"I wanted him to come. I wanted him to see what he decided to close," she said.

Mendolia hopes the church will stay open and says she has “good vibes.” Her grandchildren are the fifth generation of her family attending church at Mary Immaculate. Her parents moved from Ireland and did not drive, so they bought a home close enough to walk to church.

Transportation is still an issue for many parishioners at Mary Immaculate. There is no bus service on Sundays. About a dozen residents from the Stone Institute Pettee House, a rest home and nursing home across the street, sat in the church’s front row during Mass. Most use walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

Sophia Thompson, a resident of the rest home, looks out at Mary Immaculate from her window everyday and has attended Mass there for two years. She does not know where she will go when the parish closes.

"I never saw such a tremendous crowd," she said about the Mass with the archbishop. "I was wishing he'd say this place will never close. I'm still praying."

Transportation is a problem for more than just the elderly. Sheila Brady, a parishioner for 39 years, does not drive. Brady, from Ireland, said she is worried about the long walk to Mass in the winter but remains positive.

"I'll find a way," she said.

Brady is more concerned with losing Father Kenneth A. LeBlanc, Mary Immaculate’s pastor.

"We're not just losing a church. We're losing a priest," she said.

The fate of the church is in God’s hands, Father LeBlanc told parishioners after the Mass.

Father LeBlanc was born in Waltham and grew up in Natick. He has been the pastor for over four years and does not know where he will go when it closes.

"It's a heartbreaking reality for everyone concerned," he said.

Members of St. Peter Parish in South Boston are also heartbroken at the decision to close their parish. They have refused a request by the archdiocese to submit a date for a final Mass. Originally, the archbishop proposed closure on Sept. 1, but he accepted an appeal to stay open for the 100th anniversary, which was celebrated on Sept. 12.

Parishioners plan to appeal the closure to Archbishop O’Malley and then Pope John Paul II.

Many parishioners confronted the archbishop after the Mass on Sept. 8, asking him to change his mind. Archbishop O’Malley left abruptly after an exchange with a female parishioner, according to The Boston Globe.

The woman would not tell the press what she said, and the archbishop’s aides said they were not sure what had happened.

St. Peter is a parish with a prominent Lithuanian community from 40 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts. Lithu-anian immigrants built the church in 1904, and Masses are still offered in Lithuanian.

Father Stephen Zukas, the pastor, cited low sacramental index and changing demographics in South Boston as reasons for closure.

"There is a 100-year tradition in the parish of not only building our church, but being an active community and being able to support ourselves," he said. "The people are determined to do anything they can to preserve the parish and the church."

"By closing our parish they're basically annihilating a Lithuanian ministry in Boston," said Gloria Adomkaitis, the chairwoman of both the parish council and the Friends of St. Peter Lithuanian Parish.

AP materials contributed to this report