In Pews of Our Lady Shock, Anger and Tears

By Robert Mills
Lowell Sun [Concord MA]
Downloaded May 27, 2004

CONCORD Pastor Austin Fleming addressed his congregation at the Our Lady Help of Christians parish last night poignantly and simply.

"Oh my God, you are beautiful," he said, earning 30 seconds of roaring applause from parishioners.

Just hours before, those same faces some in tears and some grimaced in anger learned their parish would be one of 65 closed under a downsizing announced by the Archdiocese of Boston.

Our Lady Help of Christians and Concord's other Catholic parish, St. Bernard's, will both be closed and a new parish will be formed on the site of St. Bernard's.

In a prayer service aimed at addressing the closure, Fleming told the church they were beautiful because they were the face of Christ.

"We need God's spirit as never before to fill us, heal us and lead us," he said.

Fleming asked parishioners many of whom openly wept at the start of the service, packed into pews and stood arm to arm around the entire wall of the sanctuary to replace their anger with prayer.

He said he too has many questions about the closure, and held a brief question-and-answer session.

He said he believes the parish was closed since it was one of two in a small town. The parish is solvent, enjoys good attendance and has well-kept facilities, including a one-year-old $1.3 million parish center just behind the sanctuary.

About 1,000 families attend the parish, with average weekend attendance of 900 to 1,000 people, Fleming said.

He told parishioners word on exactly when the parish will close should come in mid-June, and that he has been told the process should be complete by the first Sunday in Advent, close to Thanksgiving.

He also assured parishioners that money saved through the closings would not go toward settlements of sexual abuse lawsuits. He said those were paid for with the previous sale of archdiocese land in Brighton.

He also said the closure was not due to his joining a call for former Archbishop Bernard Law to resign during the scandal.

He said the Parish Council will meet tonight to prepare an appeal to the archdiocese, but told parishioners not to get their hopes up.

"We have no new arguments to make," he said. "They've all been made."

Asked by parishioners about his own future, the popular Fleming said he is not sure what it holds.

"The job market for me is pretty good," he said, drawing laughter.

After the service, Fleming admitted he was "very surprised" by the closure.

"I knew it could happen but I didn't expect it," he said.

Outside the service, parish councilor Paul LoVecchio said he worshipped there for 25 years, and raised two children there.

He said he was angry that the only apparent grounds for appeal would be procedural. He said the process of choosing parish closings was not transparent, calling it a "sham."

"It's the lack of transparency that makes me angry," LoVecchio said, noting that it is still not fully clear why the parish will be closed.

He said he will also be angry if the laity does not get a say in who the pastor of the new, combined church will be, citing the involvement Fleming always allowed the laity.

Meg Gaudet, at the service with sons Andrew and Matthew, said her family has gone to the parish since 1987, when it moved into the area and switched from St. Bernard's. She compared last night's service to a wake.

"It is like losing family," she said. "It feels like a lot of losses all at once."