CLOSING THE CHURCH 1.
Because I’ve not been a regular church goer for almost five decades I reluctantly consented to attend the final Sunday mass at the soon to be shuttered St. Leo’s in Pawtucket. My reluctance was based on the fact that I knew attendance for this mass would be overflowing and I felt current parishioners and long time St. Leo’s attendees should not lose a seat because of me. However my sister, Virginia, who has been faithful to her faith, no longer drives and needed a ride.
St. Leo’s is a small church and all the familiar icons were on display as we entered; the side baptismal font presided over by a statue of the church’s patron saint, the pink ceilings with holy scenes painted in rectangular patterns and the Virgin Mother standing guard over the votive candles.
Five minutes before the start of the service the pews were packed, a very rare occurrence these past years. I sensed sadness leavened with inevitability in the mostly elderly gathering as Reverend Michael Sisco, escorted by altar girls and past parish priests, began the opening processional.
St. Leo’s had an outsized influence on the Darlington section of Pawtucket where I grew up. My family’s history ran deep. My brother, sister and I all attended St. Leo’s School next to the Church. Raftus baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals were all held in this Church. A memorial brick honoring our parents is part of a collection in front of the entrance.
Although I felt a stranger in the midst of these more diligent worshipers
I also felt a sense of peace as the familiar rituals of the mass unspooled. Prior to the mass my sister, wife, sister- in -law and I lit candles in memory of my older brother Mike who passed this past October. I took great solace in that. My wife and I also found joy, and surprising sentiment, watching the priest, Father Davenport, who married us on this altar forty four years ago return to help celebrate the mass.
For a reluctant attendee, a lapsed Catholic, I was experiencing a flood of emotions in this old building.
St. Leo’s Parish was established in 1916 and flourished for decades. In typical Rhode Island fashion it served a mainly Irish contingent while St. Cecilia’s Church barely three hundred yards down the street had a predominately French clientele. Attendance at both places of worship waned starting in the 1990’s. St. Leo’s was forced to close their school in 2008. In 2011 the decline in parishioners and income necessitated the merging of these two parishes into a new entity called the parish of St. John Paul II, a solution which caused angst on both sides as closure of one church seemed unavoidable. After much speculation the announcement of St. Leo’s closing became official in December of 2018.
Reverend Sisco, who has served as pastor for both churches the past few years, deftly used his homily at this final Sunday mass to mix sentiment with hope. He also leaned heavily on the beautiful sentiments of a letter written to him for the occasion by Sister Marie Fatima (Nunes) O.P., a long time parishioner who penned a powerful homage to the church’s past and to the endurance of faith which transcends any one place of worship. Her words, read by Reverend Sisco, reminded all that it is not the walls, the columns or the choir loft which keeps a religion intact, it is the faith of the people.
This last Sunday gathering was the mass of the Epiphany which celebrates the three magi offering of gifts to the baby Jesus. While there was no gift of a great personal conversion for me in my final hour in St. Leo’s I did feel a palpable resurgence of faith which may mean less reluctance to make occasional visits to places of worship of varied denominations to recapture that sense of shared community.
Funny how even a brother’s reluctant favor can restore one’s faith.
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