Decades after Abuse, Church Goes on

By Matt O'Brien
Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise [Leominster MA]
Downloaded October 29, 2003

LEOMINSTER -- Twenty years after former priest Robert Kelley sexually assaulted Heather Mackey Godin, she still shudders when she passes by St. Cecilia's Church.

"When I drive down Mechanic Street, it is still a blow to me," she told the Sentinel & Enterprise.

Kelley quietly left St. Cecilia's 20 years ago for another church, but his name is a painful memory to some in the parish.

"They talk about it, but they feel uncomfortable," said Lancaster resident Phil Coleman, an active member of the close-knit parish since 1971. "How would you feel if it's your brother or sister that did it?"

At 6:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, churchgoers arrived in darkness to a city landmark; the home parish French-Canadian immigrants built in the heart of the Great Depression and proudly viewed as their towering accomplishment in the French Hill neighborhood.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Francis Goguen, says many of the daily churchgoers will head off to work after attending church.

"These are things that happened 20 years ago or more," said Goguen, the only full-time priest at a church of 4,000 registered members, almost half of whom he said attend services on any given weekend.

"Many of the people who are presently members were not members at that time," he said. "Over a few years the whole complexion of the parish changes."

Kelley pleaded guilty earlier this year to raping two girls at St. Cecilia's. He is now serving a state-prison sentence.

For some of St. Cecilia's newest parishioners, the Kelley trials are a distant concern unrelated to their church and faith.

John Daelhousen doesn't live on French Hill.

He doesn't share the French surname of his fellow parishioners.

He said he wouldn't even recognize Kelley if he bumped into him on the street because he pays scant attention to the headlines.

But for 20 years, St. Cecilia's has been the parish of choice for him and his family.

"When I moved to Leominster, it was a matter of choice of convenience, or Mass schedule, or something," he said. "Maybe it was the beauty of the church. I just kept going there."

Goguen arrived as associate pastor in 1976, the same year as Kelley and newly appointed pastor George Denomme.

Kelley could speak French, an advantage at a church that still had French-speaking services.

He arrived with a knack for fund-raising after the parish had witnessed a decade of fiscal decline that included a lightning bolt striking the church steeple in 1975.

"The guy was brilliant," said Coleman. "The guy could give a sermon and people would listen. Nobody would deny that. I could listen to him talk all day."

Goguen said a changing social climate in the 1970s also helped decimate the population of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, the nuns who, for three quarters of a century, educated parish children at a school adjacent to the church.

The school shut down in 1977 because the parish could not afford lay teachers, Goguen said.

"I think the nuns added an awful lot of spirituality to the parish," said Goguen. "They passed on that spirituality to the children and the families. When they left, it was a great loss."

The years Kelley abused young girls at the church -- he has admitted to 50 to 100 victims at St. Cecilia's alone between 1976 and 1983 even though he has only been charged with two -- were the same six years of intense celebrated refurbishment that led up to the 1984 rededication of the church.

A poem written for the dedication is now posted outside the nave: "That this church that / Was in jeopardy / Of loss and tearing down / Now lives in restoration / And wears a victory crown!"

"The church was getting pretty dirty and run-down," said the author of the poem, Norma Girouard, a French Hill native who at 76 and in a wheelchair can no longer attend Mass. "It's a lovely church now. It's almost like a cathedral."

Girouard said the poem was her small part in giving to the church. Other people gave money, hand-carved religious statues or donated shrines.

Alexina Dionne, once a daily churchgoer who now lives in a nursing home, donated a Botticino marble altar.

Her family now refers to it as the "altar of abandonment."

Kelley befriended Dionne all the while abusing her granddaughter, Heather Mackey, at the church, rectory, parish school, and once in the midst of an annual craft fair.

"Certainly these things should never have happened," said Goguen.

Lawsuits have accumulated against the diocese since the outbreak of the Boston clergy abuse crisis in 2002, and Kelley's victims believe it is only a matter of time before they find the Worcester Diocese legally responsible.

Constance Sweeney, the Springfield judge who paved the way for the Boston crisis by ordering the Archdiocese in 2001 to uncover thousands of documents on defrocked priest John Geoghan, now presides over the latest Kelley civil trial stemming from the priest's first assignment in Southbridge.

But still, the church moves on.

"I think life has a lot of ups and downs," Goguen said. "The life of a church, the life of a parish, is very similar. The church has been here for 2,000 years, has had plenty of sinners. On the other hand, there are plenty of saints."


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