Closed Church, Open Hearts

In my heart, Our Lady Help of Christians will always be my spiritual home. Even now that I'm no longer a member. And even when it's no longer a church.

Let me explain. Recently, Archbishop Sean O'Malley announced the closing of 65 parishes in my home area, the Archdiocese of Boston. Among them is the parish I grew up in. Since 1948, it has been a source of so many blessings.

In 1952, Father John Scollan broke me in as an altar boy at the parish. Vesting for Mass, he would kiss the stole, cincture and other vestments with such reverence that I became filled with wonder over what, exactly, was taking place before me. On Jan. 30, 1954, my dear friend and mentor, Father Scollan, suffered a heart attack and died on a Saturday afternoon while hearing confessions. At the time, I was crushed, but I have never forgotten him or ceased asking him to intercede for me and my loved ones.

How could I ever forget Madeline Ryan, who was a daily communicant at Our Lady's and a pillar of the church? One time, she chastised me and my fellow altar boy, Jim McMullen, for giggling on the altar during Mass. Miss Ryan was a wonderful person, someone I admired greatly as I grew older.

In 1969, a fire destroyed Our Lady's. I remember rushing to the church in the dead of winter and standing in the freezing cold and darkness, watching the flames light up the sky. I remember asking myself, “How could Our Lady let this happen?” Within months, the church was rebuilt and, soon enough, the fire became a distant memory.

As a boy, I could look out our dining-room window and see Our Lady's. I remember how hard it rained on the Saturday in May when I proudly put on an all-white suit and received my first holy Communion. Now I could go to Mass with my dad every day and receive Our Lord in the Eucharist daily.

I was confirmed at Our Lady's by Bishop Jeremiah Minihan, a great college football player at Georgetown who at one time served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston. Through him, I received the grace to become a mature Christian — a soldier of Christ, as we were taught.

How could I ever forget the ringing of the Angelus from Our Lady's steeple? Three times each day, the solemn bells would toll, announcing the Annunciation. As a youth, especially if I was in a particularly wistful mood, I would briefly stop, listen to the bells and ponder what I was hearing. “What is this mellow sound that speaks so clearly of mystery?” I would subconsciously ask myself. Then I would go about the business of getting to the ball field for another game of pickup baseball.

Today, many are saddened by the closing of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish, which is located in a historic suburb of Boston. Our hearts go out to the pastor, Father Austin Fleming, and the current parishioners of Our Lady's.

Change is never easy. Yet we Catholics must push forward with hope and expectant joy in our hearts. There are new frontiers ahead, new souls to be evangelized, catechized and encouraged daily while it is still “today” (see Hebrews 3:13). The challenges are many, and the Church is so much more than a single parish, or even the sum of all its parishes.

Meantime, Our Lady Help of Christians will never die — not in my heart nor in the hearts of generations of faithful Catholics who came to Christ before her altar.

Wally Carew, author of A Farewell To Glory, writes from Medford, Massachusetts.