Leading the way in spirit at St. Mary’s parish in Franklin

By Hattie Bernstein
June 22, 2014

Monica Baker and daughters (from left) Leslie and Meredith take part in Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Franklin.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Rev. Brian F. Manning stood on the landing outside St. Mary Catholic Church in Franklin watching families hurry across the busy street and up the flight of granite steps, on their way to the 10:30 a.m. Mass.

“In American culture, people don’t run on time. There’s so much traffic, so many obligations. They’re doing the best they can,” said the pastor, not a trace of disdain in his voice.

It wasn’t like this in the 1950s when the priest was growing up in the Sacred Heart parish in Roslindale. In those days, 10 Masses were held on a Sunday, and rarely did you see anyone rushing into the church at the last minute, or the pastor, poised like God’s crossing guard, at the front door.

But on this day, people spill into the pews in the 900-seat church moments before the Rev. John Sullivan begins the service.

They are in a parish where the congregation has grown by 600 over the past five years, and where an average total of nearly 2,500 adults and children attend the six weekend Masses.

Though several parishes in area communities — such as Immaculate Conception in Marlborough, St. Matthew in Southborough, St. Patrick in Natick, St. Agnes in Arlington, and St. Mary’s in Holliston — have strong Mass attendance, the Franklin church led the region last year, according to figures provided by the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Worcester.

Boston church officials say the St. Mary success story goes beyond numbers.

“It’s not a title or the biggest parish, but serving the people of God,” said Sister Pat Boyle, associate director of the archdiocese’s Office of Parish Planning. She said Manning is “open to newness, willing to make changes, and get back to the heart’’ of his mission, and parishioners are responding.

“They have caught that, the vibrancy,” Boyle said. “They see it in him and they want it.”

The kind of attendance at St. Mary is rare in churches in the Boston Archdiocese, which in response to declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests, and a corresponding drop in collections has closed and sold church properties, and consolidated parishes across the region in recent years.

For more than a decade a drumbeat of bad news about the church, including reports on sexual abuse by priests, has diminished the number of local Catholics active in their faith.

St. Mary has not been immune to the troubles.

In 2002, the Globe reported allegations that the Rev. Anthony J. Rebeiro had sexually abused a woman while a priest at St. Mary in 1983. The woman’s husband said he was rebuffed by the pastor at the time, a regional bishop, and then-archbishop Bernard Law when he complained in 1984 about the abuse. But the archdiocese paid for psychotherapy for the woman in 1994, according to the Globe.

Rebeiro was placed on administrative leave in 2002 after a report that he had molested a child at another parish in the 1970s, the Globe reported. He has denied all allegations.

“He remains on administrative leave and is not in ministry,” archdiocesan spokesman Terry Donilon said last week.

Manning, who has been pastor in Franklin for five years, said that when the allegations against Rebeiro surfaced “there were discussions” among parishioners, but “when I came people had relegated it to the past.”

Like other parishes, St. Mary has implemented screening and other programs to head off potential abuse as part of a broad effort to regain the trust of the faithful.

Also, many Catholics hope the election of Pope Francis and his more inclusive approach to the faith, together with a new emphasis on evangelization, will bring people back.

But the numbers reflect the challenge.

Average weekend Mass attendance in the archdiocese was 456,815 in 1989, compared with 244,188 last year. In 2002 alone, the year that reports spread of priest sexual abuse of children and the mishandling of these cases by church figures, attendance dropped by more that 65,000. It has bounced up and down from year to year but has been in a largely downward trend.

The typical parish in the Northeast, according to the nonprofit Center for Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, has lost 167 registered parishioners and 22 “Mass attenders’’ since 2008.

During roughly this same period, St. Mary has been bursting with the energy and bloom of a late New England spring.

Financially strong, the parish is also rich in social and service opportunities for a diverse congregation of 4,526 households and 14,007 people, according to the most recent parish records. Last year, 212 children made their First Communion at St. Mary’s; 218 were confirmed; 117 were baptized; 12 couples were married; and 112 funerals were held in the church. In addition, participation in programs such as religious education for children and adults, a health ministry, prayer groups, Bible study, a prayer shawl ministry, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and a book club continue to flourish.

In some ways, its growth is driven by the town’s location along Interstate 495, putting it within an easy commute of Boston, Worcester, and Providence. During the 1990s, Franklin’s population increased by more than a third, the result of an influx of highly educated and well-paid professionals, many taking jobs in the high-tech companies locating in new industrial parks just off the highway. Housing was affordable. The schools were good. And by 2009, when Family Circle magazine named Franklin one of the top 10 places in the country to raise a family, the median income was more than $80,000.

But location doesn’t explain why on Sunday mornings, or Saturday afternoons, some people bypass one or two Catholic churches closer to home to attend Mass and be part of the parish life at St. Mary.

“There’s a real sense of participation, it’s not just going through the motions,” said Susan Dietrich, a Medway resident who drives past two other Catholic churches every week on her way to Mass at St. Mary.

Dietrich, her husband, and their two sons registered in the parish more than five years ago after moving to the area from New Hampshire. Since then, both sons have made First Communion in the church, and she and her husband have served as volunteers in religious education and Scouts programs.

“We were looking for a parish home,” she said, describing a search that ended at St. Mary. “They could meet us where we were.”

Pandora Carlucci, vice chairwoman of the parish council, joined St. Mary in 1987, after she and her husband, a Franklin native, relocated from New Orleans with their young family. Over the years, she’s witnessed the ebb and flow of participation in the church, a reflection of “factors associated with the church and with individual beliefs.”

But one thing hasn’t changed: “I’ve always felt welcome,” she said. “It’s so personal.”

“St. Mary Parish is a caring parish,” she wrote in an e-mail. “People recognize that culture when they walk through the church doors.”

Lisa De Baggis Oxford shares that feeling. She grew up in the parish, the third generation in her family to attend Mass, receive the sacraments, and participate in the social activities that have built a sense of fellowship at St. Mary.

Over the years, she has taught religious education, put together the children’s liturgy, and served as both lector and Eucharistic minister. Every August at the parish’s St. Rocco Festival, she and her extended family run a pastry booth, a popular concession that pays tribute to her Italian grandparents, whose local bakery was a landmark in town until it was sold in 1972.

“It’s family for me. The parish I’ve known my whole life,” said Oxford, the mother of two adult children. “The parish has grown gracefully over the years. It’s evolved.”

Tom Curran, a member of the parish since 1977, said he and his wife, Jane, chose the parish first, then looked for a home nearby after he took a new job in the community.

“It was a sense of community and a sense of faith,” said Curran, a Jamaica Plain native and retired general manager at General Dynamics who said he grew up in a parish “bursting at the seams.”

“It’s like family,” said Jane Curran. “Because of the size, you can find where you belong.”

But if the parish is like a family, it’s a quiet and functional one, going about its business without drawing attention to itself, an anomaly in a time of closing churches, shrinking Mass attendance, and a world church that, despite a popular new pope, continues to be bedeviled by scandal, conflict, and controversy.

“A lot of people don’t realize there are parishes like this, especially in Boston,” said Mark Gray, a researcher and blogger at Georgetown’s Center for Research on the Apostolate. “The perception is that there is declining attendance, places being closed. It goes against the conventional wisdom.”

But it’s not just the convergence of location and demographics that drives the success of the parish, Gray speculated. The commitment and participation found at St. Mary doesn’t happen out of the blue.

“The parish is doing something,” he said.

Its pastor gives the credit to God, saying he sees his role as assistant and facilitator. High participation, deep commitment, and an energizing community are God’s work, not his.

“My mission is to bring joy and hope and comfort and compassion — and a little humor,” Manning said.

But parishioners say it’s their pastor and his two parochial vicars, Sullivan and the Rev. Anthony Le, who have set the tone and put out the welcome mat.

“There’s a lot of spirit and life, a wide variety of people, and very welcoming,” said Jacques Brunelle, who joined the parish in 1980 with his wife, Helen, and their then month-old daughter, and now manages the parish website.

Sarah Drake said she and her husband, Greg, found what they were looking for when they registered in the parish 20 years ago. Now the parents of four boys, ages 18, 15, 8, and 7, the couple met in college in the 1980s. Neither had set foot inside a church in years.

“We were married in the church at my mother’s insistence,” said Sarah. She recalled a conversation with a priest before the wedding that now resonates with her.

“He told us sometimes people leave the church after confirmation and some come back,” Drake recalled. “Darn if that priest wasn’t 100 percent accurate.”



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