St. Joseph Questions Priest's Leaving

By Albert McKeon
The Telegraph [Nashua NH]
November 14, 2003

NASHUA A church's spiritual and physical aspirations often rise or fall with its pastor.

A vibrant pastor can boost the religious quests of parishioners, and even help realize their wishes for a more modern house of worship. In turn, an indifferent or a disagreeable pastor can make a church and its faithful feel empty.

By many accounts, the Rev. Gerard Desmarais made a constructive difference at St. Joseph Church before abruptly leaving this month.

For instance, parishioners credit him with making the construction of a $2.7 million church building on West Hollis Street become a reality two years ago.

But Desmarais left the church last week with what some consider the briefest of explanations. He told parishioners that he disagreed with Bishop John McCormack's managerial practices, but he did not provide further details, other than that the diocese had hampered his ministry and that he did not receive pay for a recent six-month leave of absence.

Most of the St. Joseph parishioners interviewed for this story accept Desmarais' reasoning. Several of them have read a published report that Desmarais actually left because McCormack refused to allow Desmarais to live with his male partner. Desmarais denies that claim, but if it's true, it conflicts with what he told his church.

Catholic churches see pastors leave quite often. Rarely does a priest stay at a church for an extended period of time, as diocesan leaders frequently shift pastors to accommodate retirements and help adjust to a shrinking clergy.

Despite having experienced this shifting tide, some parishioners still feel stunned over Desmarais' resignation, regardless of the exact circumstances. After all, they worshiped with him for nine years.

"I'm very devastated about Father Gerry," said parishioner Gerri Speidel. "I think it's time the Diocese of Manchester listens to their priests. I don't know what the differences were, but for him to walk away like that, there's got to be strong differences there."

Desmarais could not be reached for comment. He left the parish last week, telling parishioners he wanted to move to Florida. McCormack accepted his resignation, but the diocese will not comment on the nature of Desmarais' departure, diocesan spokesman Pat McGee said.

When interviewed last week, just days after announcing his decision to parishioners at weekend Masses, Desmarais declined to detail his disagreements with the diocese and McCormack.

Many parishioners, though, interpreted Desmarais' resignation as another symbol of failure by the diocese and McCormack. Many of them already want McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian to resign for their handling of abusive clergy. They see Desmarais as a victim of closed-minded and secretive diocesan leaders.

Desmarais allowed a Voice of the Faithful chapter to meet in the parish, a sign of support applauded by many parishioners seeking change within the Catholic Church. He did this even though other parishioners disapprove of pastoral backing of the lay group, because they suspect it wants to use the abuse scandal to move an agenda contrary to Vatican teachings.

"I understand and sympathize with the way he had to leave," said parishioner and Voice of the Faithful member Sandy Johnson.

"The condition of the diocese is a disaster, and it's a concern of Voice of the Faithful. The bishop is reluctant to speak with representatives of groups, and he doesn't seem to be interested in our concerns, and they are legitimate," Johnson said.

McGee said McCormack is willing to hear the concerns of parishioners, and that he will always meet with priests to discuss diocesan affairs.

For parishioners such as Johnson, Desmarais had legitimate reasons to leave. They think his resignation reflects the frustrations many Catholics have with the current diocesan leaders.

They believe, for instance, that the diocese has purposely not provided New Hampshire Catholics with pertinent fiscal information, and has unwisely chosen to cut diocesan programs in light of the church having to pay at least $6 million in settlements to abuse victims.

"He was very plainspoken," St. Joseph parishioner and Voice of the Faithful member George Thompson said of Desmarais. "He said what was on his mind, and he was disappointed with the dialogue and leadership between the clergy and bishop's office. That's what Father Gerry said. And those (parishioners) that I know, they are very dissatisfied with communications."

A report in The Union Leader last week has prompted another discussion among some parishioners.

Citing two priests who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the newspaper reported that Desmarais really left because he wanted his male partner to live with him in the church rectory, located in Hollis, but McCormack insisted that he live the chaste and celibate life of a Roman Catholic priest. Desmarais denied in the story that he is gay, or that he made such a request.

Thompson was one of several parishioners who said he does not believe the unidentified priests' claims and will stand by Desmarais. But Thompson said his position would change should he discover the claims are true.

"If it's proven, I couldn't support that kind of lifestyle," he said.

Desmarais did acknowledge to The Union Leader that he in fact did receive pay during his six-month leave, contrary to what he told his parishioners.

The Rev. Marcel Martel, the pastor of Holy Angels Church in Plaistow and former leader of St. Francis Xavier Church in Nashua, said he was unaware of the reasons why Desmarais left the diocese. But Martel questions Desmarais' sudden departure.

"To me, it sounded like Father Gerry did not expect anything to (reach the media). My impression is he was deflecting whatever reason it was and said he didn't like the bishop," Martel said.

"It didn't sound credible, because he was leaving rapidly and didn't allow for a closing Mass or a proper farewell," Martel said. "He made an announcement, and ran. That questions the credibility of his explanation."

Like Desmarais, Martel disapproves of McCormack's leadership, and in fact does not consider the bishop a leader at all. He thinks Christian and the diocesan chancellor, the Rev. Edward Arsenault, actually run the church.

"Leadership is not one of his qualities," Martel said of McCormack. "Leadership means influencing people and having persuasive influence on the community. I don't see him as having that gift."

But Martel credits McCormack for being willing to hear his opinions, at any time. Martel said he once sent McCormack an angry e-mail about the diocese's handling of a priest cleared of sexual impropriety, and was able to meet with him that very day.

Said McGee, the diocesan spokesman: "If a priest says the bishop won't meet with him, I don't think it's accurate. He certainly spends a lot of time working with priests, and the work of the diocese is focused on ongoing pastoral planning."

For the time being, the diocese will have priests temporarily minister the sacraments at St. Joseph until a new pastor can be named, McGee said. The clergy shortage doesn't make that task easy, but diocesan leaders will put their "faith in God," he said.

The parishioners of St. Joseph know Desmarais' exit will affect them for some time to come, but they remain confident they can move ahead. At least one longtime parishioner knows where to look during times such as these.

"My opinion is different than others," said Marilyn Parent. "There's a big cross hanging in our church. I look at it, and when people are frustrated I say, 'If you follow Jesus, you won't be disappointed. If you follow man, you will be disappointed.' "

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832


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