By Carol Stocker
December 5, 1983
"I remember this," said a startled Rev. John H. Curley when he spied the old newspaper clipping across the conference table in his office at the Pilgrim Center in Braintree.
The headline read: "Residents fight home for town's troubled youth." The date was March 11, 1970. "I can remember the hours we put into it and the pain we put into it," Fr. Curley said.
In 1970, the Pilgrim Center for troubled boys was just a dream that was slowly dying.
It had begun a year earlier when a group of South Shore residents, alarmed by the increase in runaways, the incursion of drugs into the suburbs and one youth's death from a heroin overdose, incorporated themselves as Youth Resources Inc. Rev. Francis C. Anderson of All Souls Church, Fr. Curley of St. Francis of Assisi Church and Roderick W. Smith of Braintree High School's guidance department were leaders in the nonprofit, nonsectarian effort.
"It was a hard year," said Fr. Curley, recalling the ups and downs of locating appropriate real estate, only to be thwarted in getting support for its use as a group home - an alternative to jail or street life - for troubled boys.
The project was kept alive by Braintree High School students, who raised almost $6000 through a Walk for Human Development. The money was used for a temporary residence, a small two-family house, where two boys lived with Frank Wilhelm, the first director of the program.
Very quickly Fr. Curley and others realized that more room was needed to help local teenagers. At the same time, Fr. Curley's tenure as a parish priest was about to expire.
He took a deep breath and went directly to Humberto Medeiros, then archbishop of Boston.
"I was shaking," Fr. Curley recalled.
"He said, Jack, are you afraid of me?'
"I said, No, but I'm here representing an awful lot of people, and this is a very serious business.'
"And he asked, Well, what do you need?'
"I said, A place' " for Pilgrim Center. Fr. Curley also asked to be allowed to stay in Braintree and oversee its establishment.
Medeiros approved both wishes.
According to Fr. Curley, Archbishop Medeiros had lunch that same day with Thomas J. Flatley, a prominent builder and developer on the South Shore.
Very soon the ideal dwelling - a five-room ranch house at the end of a dead-end residential street near the Southeast Expressway - was found through the Flatley connection. It came with an old factory and a parking lot.
The Archdiocese of Boston bought the facility and placed it at the disposal of Youth Resources for nonsectarian use. On Labor Day 1971, Wilhelm and five boys moved into 100 River st. in Braintree, and the Pilgrim Center - with Fr. Curley as executive director - became a reality.
It grew in reputation in both the community and the state as a model residence for boys ages 15 to 19. And Cardinal Medeiros' support continued through the years with frequent visits and personal checks.
In 1977, at Fr. Curley's request, the Cardinal purchased a second house on six acres of land at 140 Adams st., also in Braintree, which allowed the center to expand to 20 residents and included a site for building a vocational school.
That school, the one Fr. Curley and the Cardinal planned for so long, will be dedicated next Sunday on that very site. Called Medeiros Hall, it will offer training in computers, mechanics and carpentry.
"It will be a bittersweet day because the Cardinal was going to dedicate it himself, but now it will be in his memory," said Fr. Curley's assistant, Rev. Bill Scanlan.
"But it will also be joyous, a gathering of the entire Pilgrim Center family, with the ribbon-cutting at 1:30 followed by an open house until 6 p.m."
In the last 13 years, 320 boys from 83 Massachusetts towns have been residents at Pilgrim Center. Each has spent 10 months in an intensive program of schooling and therapy that aims to arm each boy with the self-knowledge, self-es-teem, discipline and academic skills he needs to make a new start when he returns to his own neighborhood.
Although the center has a chapel, Fr. Curley said that religious participation is voluntary and that many of the boys are not Catholic.
Rod Smith, now an administrator in the Norwood school system, recalled the Cardinal's role: "Fr. Curley and Cardinal Medeiros did become very close. I never saw Jack using that. But when he had to talk to him, the door just opened wider.
"But even with the death of the Cardinal, there's no doubt that the center will continue because it has blossomed into a model program for both the state of Massachusetts and the Church diocese."
"It's quite a program. You really see boys change," said Michael Sansone, a former counselor who is now principal of St. Catherine of Siena School in Norwood. "I used to be a bit of a cynic. But I witnessed real change in personalities and characters the six months I was there. I left a believer."
Fr. Curley estimates that 70 percent of the graduates are working or going to school - while 30 percent have continued to have troubles with the law.
Most boys are sent to the Pilgrim Center by the state Division of Youth Services. Their environment is totally controlled. They live, work and go to school on the premises and can go home on weekends only if they earn sufficient merit points - awarded at the end of each shift by staff members, who rate each boy on effort, attitude, interaction with residents and staff, and cooperation.
"These kids need constant feedback and encouragement and goals," said Fr. Curley.
Positive peer pressure is another key to the program. Boys nearing the end of their stay help new boys adjust. Daily grades and points for conduct are posted in the classrooms for all to see. Total honesty is the foundation of the group therapy sessions, and the boys evaluate each other's progress at weekly meetings. Family counseling is another important aspect.
Although boys come back to visit, one of Curley's goals is to have more follow-up for Pilgrim Center graduates. Medeiros Hall will help promote this by taking on graduates as day students.
Eventually the center, with the new vocational school and resident halls at two locations, will serve 50 boys and their families at a time.
"There are times when it has been made very clear to me that the Lord is the Lord," said Fr. Curley. "Times when He's said, Jack, shut up and let me take care of things.' This is the Lord's house, not mine. It couldn't be here if it were just left up to me."
Others, however, say the center could never have happened without Fr. Curley's perseverance, practicality and total dedication.
The son of Irish immigrants, Fr. Curley grew up in Brighton in a tight community, which has led him to "see the neighborhood as part of the extended family" in dealing with his boys.
St. Columbkille Church was the center of his family's world. "You wouldn't miss an anniversary, a wake or a funeral. There was a sense of community, that we are more than ourselves."
His teenage years centered on Commonwealth Country Club, where he worked as a caddie. From there Fr. Curley went to Boston College and St. John'sSeminary. He "loved" South Boston when he was assigned to residence at St. Augustine's Church there.
But when he assumed his first pastorship at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Braintree, which was enduring growing pains as commuters settled into new housing developments, Fr. Curley found "there wasn't that neighborhood . . . thing," in the suburbs. "The people were wonderful, but in general people would live on the same street and not step into each other's houses. Kids lose something in human development then."
Now Fr. Curley has succeeded in creating a community of his own in Braintree. "The Pilgrim Center family is not just the boys or the staff. It's very big. I have businesses who contribute. Elderly people who have sent me $2 a month for years . . .
Many members of that community will come to the open house Sunday. The rocky beginning is just a memory, an old newspaper clipping, which Fr. Curley laid aside. "That's the biggest thing about being a priest," he said, "to teach that we're not isolated, that no man is an island."
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