The Paschal Mystery is the cornerstone upon which our Christian faith is built. During Lent we grapple with the core elements of this mystery that brings Jesus’ Passion, death and triumphant Resurrection into life within our Liturgical celebrations.

As Christians, we are a Paschal people, formed from birth to experience the vicissitudes of life with the hope that Resurrection will be our final destiny. We accompany one another during the passage from health to illness; we ritualize the journey from life to death. But when a parish is suffering from the inevitable demographic and sociological shifts that strip it of its vitality, it’s not often possible to see Resurrection at the end of the passage. 

Closing parishes is a painful reality for the Church of the United States, and those who have lost their ecclesial identity through the process seldom get to hear of any good that comes from it. But when a group of parishioners from a collaborative of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston prepared for their annual service immersion pilgrimage to Haiti, they searched the region for whatever they could salvage to help rebuild the impoverished churches in that destitute country. 

Father James Barry, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Chelsea/Everett and St. Mary of the Assumption, Revere and Father David Fontaine, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, L’Asille, Haiti made arrangements with the Diocese of Fall River to bring to Haiti whatever was available from the inside of two of our closed parishes, Immaculate Conception and Sacred Heart in Fall River. On January 30 the collaborative of parishes from the North Shore arrived in Port-au-Prince. Linda DeCristoforo, who made the trip to Haiti with her parish, gave this account:

“With permission from the Fall River Diocese we acquired a container and went to two parishes that had been closed for some time. There we filled the container to capacity. We dismantled all the pews, took statues, altars, sound systems, lecterns, even a piano. When the container arrived at Port-au-Prince the items were distributed to needy parishes in Haiti. The piano and a chapel altar went to a convent that serves the poor [where] we celebrated Mass one morning during our visit. The dismantled pews were dropped off at St. Anne’s Chapel in Cite Soleil. Cite Soleil is a part of Port-au-Prince and is the largest slum in the western hemisphere. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 people live there in extreme poverty and is overrun by gangs. St. Anne’s Chapel is adjacent to St. Anne’s School that provides a safe atmosphere for more than 1,200 students to be educated and protected from the violence.”

The beautiful churches that were built by our immigrant forebears are a monument to their hard work and piety. In Haiti, Church is less about structures and more about community. The pews from Immaculate Conception were delivered to St. Anne’s Chapel, which is actually an abandoned warehouse with an altar and no seating. More than 700 people attend Mass each Sunday where the saying “standing room only” is the result of no seating available for anyone! Linda explained, “Our task was clear, there were 400 pews to be assembled, [and] we brought all the necessary tools, including drills and power tools.” All that was needed was the manpower to help do the work of resurrecting Immaculate Conception’s pews in the empty space of the chapel.

“More than 40 students from the school’s carpentry class were brought in and were showed how to assemble the pews. We spent the entire day there and now it was up to them to continue the work. We went there on a Thursday and by the following Sunday the carpentry students had completed the task.” Members of the gang showed up to see what was going on, but the pastor of St. Anne’s had learned to work with them and they did not interfere with the work, and some even helped assemble the pews. The pastor of St. Anne’s Chapel did not tell the parishioners about the project, and when they arrived for Mass that Sunday they found pews in their church. “Much to the delight of the community, 400 people had a place to sit for the first time.” 

Immaculate Conception and Sacred Heart parishes had a long history of serving the community of Fall River, especially the poor. In his reflection on the Gospel story of the beggar Lazarus, who was willing to eat the scraps from the table of the rich man, Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that “God is not pleased with this kind of economic injustice and He burns with a passion to set it right.” These parishes understood well the preferential option for the poor, and it is no coincidence that they were resurrected in the poorest community in the western hemisphere. The people who travelled to Haiti had this final message to give to the people of Fall River:

“Thank you to the parishioners of Immaculate Conception and Sacred Heart of Fall River, your Spirit lives on forever in Haiti.”

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts