By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
BREWSTER, Mass. — As a seminarian at La Salette Seminary in East Brewster, Father Bernard Baris, M.S., remembered singing in the choir for the first official Mass celebrated at Our Lady of the Cape Parish on Christmas Eve in 1962.
“Father Joseph A. Nolin, who was the founder of the parish, didn’t have a choir … so he asked some of the seminarians to come and sing for the midnight Mass,” Father Baris told The Anchor. “I came from the seminary here along with some of my other classmates — including Father André Patenaude (‘Father Pat’) — to sing for that first Mass. Standing up in that choir loft inside a church that wasn’t even finished yet, I never thought I’d someday return here to become pastor.”
In 1997, Father Baris was indeed named pastor of Our Lady of the Cape Parish, a place he’s called home for the past 17 years.
Now at age 71, when many priests are beginning to think about retirement, Father Baris is preparing to enter a whole new phase of his ministry by becoming the director of the International Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in France, built on the original site in the French Alps where the Blessed Mother appeared to Maximin Giraud and Melanie Calvat on Sept. 19, 1846.
In a letter he sent to parishioners last month announcing the transfer that will become effective Jan. 9, 2015, Father Baris wrote: “I accepted the new position because of all the ministries of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, I feel that the Shrine at La Salette is the most important. It is the source of our foundation and the reason of our being as a religious community.”
Although he had been asked twice before to consider heading to France, Father Baris declined because his mother was ill and he didn’t want to be so far away from her. When she passed away earlier this year, he was asked to reconsider the move and he finally accepted.
“I wrote a letter to the parishioners stating that after a while you sometimes feel you’ve given everything that you’ve got to give and it’s time to move on, and I feel that way,” Father Baris said. “I also see it as a big, big challenge. It’s going to be an international challenge and a financial challenge, for sure, because people are not going on pilgrimages like they used to. Even Lourdes and Fatima don’t draw the crowds they used to, but to me this is the heart of who we are as a community.”
Noting that unlike the shrines at Lourdes and Fatima, which are open year-round and are readily accessible to pilgrims, La Salette is 6,000 feet up in the mountains and is off the beaten path.
“With Lourdes and Fatima, people get right off the train or take a bus and you’re there,” he said. “With La Salette you need to want to go there. It’s like Mount Washington — you wouldn’t think of going up Mount Washington in the winter.”
As such, Father Baris hopes to put new programs in place “where people can come and make a true pilgrimage” to La Salette.
“It really is a Spiritual place where people can hopefully come for two or three nights to really absorb the atmosphere,” he said. “It should be more of a prayerful experience and a real retreat.”
The Superior General for the Missionaries of La Salette (who have served Our Lady of the Cape Parish since its inception), in consultation with the diocesan bishop, has nominated Father William Kaliyadan, M.S., to become Father Baris’ successor and reassigned Father Raymond Vaillancourt, M.S., to serve as parochial vicar to assist alongside current parochial vicar, Father John Dolan, M.S.
“Father Kaliyadan was with me about 10 years ago,” Father Baris said. “We’ve been following each other in our ministries: he is now over at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon, N.H. where I was pastor before, and now he’s coming here to take over this parish.”
Having served Our Lady of the Cape Parish for nearly 20 years and having ministered in the diocese for more than three decades, the prospect of moving to France is certainly bittersweet for Father Baris.
But he considers it “a challenge” and a “new adventure,” not unlike the assignment he took on 17 years ago.
“When I came here, I had been involved in administration and finances for most of my ministry,” Father Baris said. “I was the treasurer at La Salette Shrine in Attleboro for nine years and then I went to another parish in Lebanon, N.H. where I served for nine years. That was my first pastoral assignment, but I had been in the religious order for 25 years and a priest for 20 years by that time.”
Facing the daunting task of building a new church and renovating much of the 30-acre property in Brewster, Father Baris wasn’t too thrilled about taking on his new pastoral assignment at the time.
“I certainly found some challenges when I first became pastor,” he said, adding that the rectory was also 50 years old and in need of repair. “So we had to redo the whole rectory. Finally, after a lot of work, we got around to building a new church.”
The “new” Our Lady of the Cape Church is actually more of an expanded renovation, Father Baris explained, as they kept one wing of the original structure intact.
“I’d say the building is 85 percent new,” he said. “We went from a church that held 350 people to a church with a capacity for 900 people. We redid everything — walls and windows. That was 10 years ago, in 2004. Bishop Sean O’Malley broke ground for the church and Bishop Coleman blessed and dedicated it.”
Over time, Father Baris not only helped to renovate and rebuild the parish infrastructure, but most of its programs as well.
“It’s always been a very vibrant parish, but sometimes you need to renew things like the Baptism prep program, the Marriage prep program, the Religious Education program,” he said. “All the parish programs — from Religious Education to prayer groups — were redone, little by little, over the last 17 years. We also instituted a lot of new programs like the parish nurse program. There’s a group of ladies who get together in the parish center to work on prayer shawls for people; we have another group that comes in once a week to make Rosaries for people, too.”
One of the parish’s most successful outreach efforts — and the one of which Father Baris remains most proud — is the charitable work they’ve done with St. Clare Parish in Dessalines, Haiti.
Dubbed “Together With Haiti,” the ongoing ministry over the last 10 years has managed to raise and send more than $1.5 million to Our Lady of the Cape’s “twin” parish in Haiti, funding the construction of two new schools, a high school, three chapels, and providing a hot meal to some 3,000 children everyday.
“We send them $5,000 a month,” Father Baris said. “This is not all parish funds, but it’s money we’ve helped raise for Haiti.”
Although it began 25 years ago and predated Father Baris’ tenure, “Together With Haiti” has really grown over the last decade. Preoccupied with renovating buildings and revamping programs when he first arrived, Father Baris didn’t make his first trip to Haiti until 10 years ago, but he’s traveled there a dozen times since.
“My first trip I’ll always remember,” he said. “After two days all I wanted to do was get out of there. My only thought was: ‘I can’t do anything here.’ It seemed like nothing could be changed in a country like that.”
After napping in the oppressive Haitian heat, Father Baris noticed a sketch of a little Haitian boy hanging up where he was staying.
“I thought: ‘Well, I can’t change the country, but maybe we can do something for that one child.’ And that changed everything for me,” he said. “When I got back on the plane, I wrote a letter titled ‘Lollipops, Starfish and Goats.’”
Father Baris’ reflection talked about how he had purchased a big bag of 500 lollipops to share with the children on his first trip to Haiti, only to find that they had more than 1,000 students at the schools. Surviving on a diet of rice and beans, he was told that a goat — which could be used to make a rich meat sauce for the children — only cost $25. Then he remembered an anecdote he once heard about a man throwing starfish into the sea.
“A man was walking along the shore where thousands of starfish had washed up by a hurricane and every once in a while he would throw a starfish back into the ocean,” he explained. “Another guy asked him: ‘What are you doing? You’re wasting your time. You can’t save all these starfish. What difference does it make?’ And the guy picked up another starfish and threw it back into the water, saying: ‘Well, it makes a difference to that one.’”
Father Baris’ simple three-part reflection, which he shared as soon as he got back to Our Lady of the Cape, seemed to resonate with parishioners. That year’s Giving Tree campaign at Christmas was earmarked specifically for Haiti and garnered an impressive $70,000. It even became known unofficially as “The Goat Campaign.”
“At Christmas, people will give ‘goats,’ or a $25 donation,” he said. “And we answer every single donation. We send out a ‘thank you’ card with photos of the children in Haiti. We have certificates you can send to people explaining how a goat has been purchased and donated in your name for Haiti.”
As recently as last month, the pastor from St. Clare’s Parish came to speak at all the Masses and a second collection raised another $27,000.
“Our normal collection in the summer is maybe $15,000,” Father Baris said. “Haiti has become a very important part of our ministry here. And I’m amazed at how people have become more generous over the years.”
It’s that generosity and sense of community that Father Baris will miss the most.
“No matter what it is, people tend to respond well because they have this feeling of community,” Father Baris said. “I don’t want to suggest it’s all about finances, but to me it’s a barometer of how people feel, especially when they make sacrifices to give.”
And although he’s ready for the challenges ahead and has embraced the idea of running one of the key Marian apparition shrines in the world, he’s also making a bit of a sacrifice himself in trading in the changing seasons on Cape Cod for eight long months of winter weather and 18 inches of snow in the French Alps.
“I love Cape Cod,” he said. “On a nice day, it’s wonderful to go the beach and spend a couple of hours there. And the people here are just fantastic.”