By Kenneth J. Souza
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — On the heels of Pope Francis’ appeal to Catholic parishes and religious communities in Europe to take in migrant refugees seeking shelter from war, poverty and hunger, it seemed appropriate that St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford would warmly welcome parishioners of nearby St. Kilian’s Church, which closed its doors after celebrating final Masses on September 13.
In a symbolic union of the two parishes, dozens of parishioners made the half-mile walk from St. Kilian’s on Ashley Boulevard to St. Anthony of Padua Church on Acushnet Avenue Monday night, where a Mass was celebrated at 7 p.m. by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V.
Father Octavio Cortez, I.V.E., parochial administrator of St. Kilian Parish, led the procession carrying the Blessed Sacrament, with parishioners bearing relics and statues from the church in tow.
Bishop da Cunha and Father Edward A. Murphy, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, joined the procession halfway up Acushnet Avenue, and the two commingled groups processed into St. Anthony’s Church for the Mass celebration.
In his opening remarks before the Liturgy, Father Murphy welcomed the St. Kilian’s parishioners, noting that this was an opportunity to create a stronger and more vibrant parish.
“Not only will we fill this church, but the area where we live in New Bedford will become a new faith,” Father Murphy said. “So this evening, inside this church that was built for 2,000 people, this is the beginning of bringing it back. I want to thank all of you — both parishes — for your cooperation and understanding.”
In honor of this “historic occasion,” Father Murphy said at the end of the Mass celebration they were going to “do something that we only do twice a year.”
Father Murphy was referring to turning on all the lights embedded in the walls and ceilings of the historic St. Anthony of Padua Church — a tradition that is typically reserved for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday.
“We’re going to turn on all the lights after Communion and we’re offering the Mass tonight for all your intentions, that this union will be the beginning of rebuilding this church,” Father Murphy said.
Referencing Sunday’s second reading from the letter of James, Bishop da Cunha echoed Father Murphy’s remarks by noting how important it is to demonstrate one’s faith.
“Faith put into action and into practice, that’s the faith that saves, that is the faith that changes lives, that is the faith that changes the world,” Bishop da Cunha said in his homily. “Well, my brothers and sisters, what a testimony to our faith in your being here today. Jesus embraced all of us to make one family of God’s people. And that is what we are called to be. We have here right now Spanish people, Portuguese people, Irish people, French people — it doesn’t matter where we came from, it doesn’t matter what our last name is, it doesn’t matter what accent we speak with — we are all God’s people.”
St. Kilian’s Parish was originally founded by Irish immigrants in 1896 and the church was dedicated in 1927. In recent years, it became home to the growing Latino and Mayan communities in the north end of New Bedford.
Due to much-needed building repairs and dwindling enrollment, Bishop da Cunha decreed that St. Kilian Church close as of September 13, and all services and ministries be relocated to St. Anthony of Padua Church, including a 12:15 p.m. weekly Sunday Mass in Spanish.
“I’m so glad that we were able to work this out and bring all of you here together and I’m so glad that I was able to be here to celebrate with all of you this new beginning, and to tell you how happy and proud I am of all of you,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I’m proud of the people of St. Kilian’s Parish and of the people of St. Anthony’s Parish, who have opened their doors and their hearts so that the people can come together as one family, as one community of faith.”
Father Cortez, who was appointed parochial administrator of St. Kilian Parish just two weeks before the transition, will remain at St. Anthony’s Parish to minister to the Spanish-speaking community.
“I transferred here from Minnesota, where I had been working at a minor seminary, so I’m not afraid of the cold weather,” Father Cortez told The Anchor. “I’m happy that I’ll be working with Father Murphy here at St. Anthony’s — he’s a good priest and I know I’m going to learn a lot from him.”
Noting that he is excited to begin his first assignment as a parish priest, Father Cortez said it’s also a bittersweet occasion.
“In a sense, it’s sad for some parishioners who have been at St. Kilian’s Parish for their whole lives, but as the bishop said, we have to be united and practice our faith,” Father Cortez said. “We’re glad that St. Anthony’s has opened their arms and hearts to welcome us.”
For Father Murphy, the addition of St. Kilian parishioners to his parish is a great blessing, as there is strength in numbers.
“Well, just knowing the times we are in, it’s a blessing to bring two parishes together to try and strengthen it,” Father Murphy said. “We’re reminded of Pope Francis that we all speak the same language when we speak of compassion, and we’re very blessed that both St. Anthony’s and St. Kilian’s are so open to coming together for this union. It’s the beginning of building back up a church here which holds almost 2,000 people; but the great gift is we still have room for more.
“We will keep trying to build it up and we’re very grateful to the bishop for being here tonight. The atmosphere and the enthusiasm of both parishes are excellent. Already the youth groups are working together, and the (Religious Education programs) will be doing the same come September 20. We’re praying for great blessings for the new St. Anthony’s Parish and for all who come here.”