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By now, most people in our area know the story of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. After a half-century of residing next to Interstate 290 and its heavy traffic, the church began to fall apart.
So church leaders made the decision to close the parish and merge with Our Lady of Loreto Church on Grafton Hill. The ensuing fight between some parishioners, pastor Monsignor Stephen Pedone, and Bishop Robert McManus has been a public mess.
I will not relitigate the case for or against closing. Rather, I want to focus on how the church was closed and what might have been done differently.
For many, a parish is a spiritual home. It is a place you go to pray. You become comfortable with the customs of the church, the homilies of the pastor and the people who sit all around you.
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Mauro DePasquale, a longtime parishioner and head of the Mount Carmel Preservation Society, likened a parish to a home. “When you come home from a trip, you say it’s good to be home. That’s how you feel when you go to your church. You see people that you pray with, that you are comfortable with. You are home.”
So what happens when you lose your home?
Church closings are nothing new. Upset and angry parishioners are an expected occurrence. While most churches close without much of a public fight, there are exceptions.
The most celebrated example in Massachusetts is the closing of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate. Officially closed in 2004, angry parishioners formed a group and refused to leave. For more than a decade, parishioners held vigil at the church, with at least one member of their group remaining in the church at all times. On May 30, 2016, after 11 years, 7 months and 5 days, they lost their fight and their vigil ended.
Worcester has seen many closings over the past several decades. While painful, most closings happened without a prolonged, public fight. The story of St. Joseph’s Church on Hamilton Street was different. Originally closed in 1992, angry parishioners held vigil in the church for 13 months.
St. Joseph’s was reopened in 1996 by Bishop Daniel Riley. Merged with Notre Dame and Holy Name, the new parish is called Holy Family Parish at St. Joseph’s Church.
In addition to the emotions that go with losing your spiritual home, some church closings also involve loyalty to one’s heritage.
Around the turn of the century, Worcester had about 100 churches. Many of these churches were originally built to accommodate various immigrant populations. Worcester had four churches dominated by French-Canadians, including Notre Dame des Canadiens.
There were many churches dominated by Irish-Americans – at least a dozen, probably many more. I remember as a young candidate in the 1970s going to “the Polish church,” “the Lithuanian church” and “the Swedish church” for various social events.
And the Italian-American community had Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Closing Mount Carmel hit a raw nerve for many Italian-Americans. This magnificent, Romanesque-style church, built in 1928, was a monument to the many hardworking immigrants who paid for its construction.
According to DePasquale, the bishop did not show much respect for that part of their argument. De Pasquale told me that, in a private meeting, the bishop said things were different today, and unlike the immigrants who founded the church, everyone now speaks English. He said parishioners could walk up the street and attend another church.
I wanted to ask the bishop about that and a few other things. But he would not give me the opportunity. I spoke to his assistant and asked for an appointment to discuss the closing of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I never heard back.
Like many denominations, the Catholic Church is losing members. At Mount Carmel, that was a part of the problem. Over the past decade, Mount Carmel lost hundreds of parishioners. Now, as a result of the church’s closing, it is losing a few more.
One member of the preservation society, a longtime, active member of the parish, was crushed by the process used to close the church. Her comments are echoed by many others of their group. “The way they have treated us is 10 times more damaging than the actual closing of the church,” she said. Her pain was so deep, she said, that she would “never join another Worcester Diocese church.”
I asked some of the principals involved what they would have done differently and what they had learned.
“They could have listened to us,” DePasquale said. “They could have extended the deadlines for closing and given us a chance to try our ideas. They could have acknowledged our church’s rich history and found a way to celebrate and preserve our heritage.
“What was missing was transparency, openness to fresh ideas, and a willingness to work together and think outside the box. They resented us and our questions right from the beginning,” he said.
Pastor Monsignor Pedone handled the discussions with parishioners without any public support from his boss the bishop. He acknowledged that, at times, he felt overwhelmed.
“I was hurting too. This parish was my home growing up, a place of solace and comfort for me. I’m sad that this will come to an end.
“And I understand the anger from some of the parishioners. They were hurting,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting that it would be directed at me. I was stunned. I kept asking myself, ‘Why are they directing this at me?’ ”
The pastor said that there were times when he let his feelings get the better of him. “I’m sorry if I didn’t handle things the way (some parishioners) think I should have. If I had to do it over again, I would not have personalized my thoughts.” With a sigh he added, “I should have been more gentle.”
The monsignor acknowledged that when you are the one delivering the message that a beloved church will close, you should expect a few arrows. “They were expressing their grief. They had nowhere to put it. They needed someone to aim it at.”
So how could this have been handled differently?
As I said, church closings are nothing new. Yet, when facing a possible church closing, I was surprised to learn that the diocese does not have a list of best practices for a pastor to follow and a team to guide him.
I realize that every church closing is unique. Nevertheless, for the sake of everyone involved, the diocese needs best practice guidelines and a team of experienced pastors and parishioners who have gone through a church closing to guide the pastor and his parish family.
Why start from scratch when you can learn from the past?
More importantly, from the beginning of all of this, it was apparent to me that there was a lack of trust and an overflowing of raw emotions between the different sides. In my experience, what was needed most was a leader who would step into the middle and serve as a mediator, someone who could cut through the emotions — someone both sides could trust.
The obvious choice for this role was Bishop McManus.
But rather than serve his people, the bishop chose to stay cloistered in his office away from the public discussion. He let the pastor and others speak for him – and take the public criticism from those angry about the closing.
In my opinion, that was a mistake and a failure of leadership.
I do not know if things would have been different if the bishop were a part of the public discussion. But given the stakes involved and the fact that so many of the people he leads were heartsick over the church’s closing, I believe he should have tried.
Recently, after Mount Carmel had been officially closed and the churches had been merged, Bishop McManus attended a Mass at the newly combined parish. The Catholic Free Press reported that the bishop said, “The first reading from Isaiah 49, about God never forgetting his people, provided words of comfort as the parish moves forward.”
Perhaps, the bishop should have read that passage to the parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel before the decision was made to close the church.
With declining attendance, it is inevitable that there will be more church closings. When that happens, it would be helpful if the bishop eased parishioners’ pain by showing them that he has not forgotten them.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.