Franciscan priest appointed to lead new,
centralized group of Fall River parishes

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — With the announcement last weekend that St. Anne’s Parish in Fall River’s south end would be closed effective November 25 and parishioners would be absorbed into a new, four-parish collective known as the Catholic Community of Central Fall River, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., established a new paradigm for inner-city pastoral planning in the diocese.


Perhaps even more unique was his selection of Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest and New Bedford native, to lead this new “cathedral-as-a-group-of-parishes” entity as its rector and parochial administrator of two neighboring parishes.

“It’s certainly not typical, but it’s not unheard of,” Father Washburn, current pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Buzzards Bay, recently told The Anchor. “For example, the Franciscans ran the cathedral in Santa Fe, N.M. for many, many decades. So it’s not unheard of, but it certainly is not typical.”

Bishop da Cunha made the appointment in collaboration with Father Robert Campagna, provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars, and after having conversations with Father Washburn about his “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope” initiative.

“We initially were just having conversations about youth and young adult ministry and (the bishop) liked the particular set of experiences, education, and skill set that I have and he thought it would be a good match for what they were trying to do in the center of Fall River,” Father Washburn said. “So, he asked, I took a day or two to think and pray about it and I said yes, and I accepted this exciting challenge.”

With the closing of St. Anne’s Parish and the subsequent shuttering of the Holy Cross and Holy Rosary chapels currently under the purview of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and its current rector, Father Richard Wilson, Father Washburn will essentially be serving as coordinator of four parish campuses — St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Anthony of Padua Parish, St. Stanislaus Parish, and Good Shepherd Parish.

Former parishioners of St. Anne’s will also be welcomed into the fold, as will parishioners from St. Bernadette’s Parish that was closed last year.

“Now, the cathedral, together with St. Anthony, Good Shepherd, and St. Stanislaus parishes will jointly plan for the future,” Bishop da Cunha wrote in his October 13 letter. “This will require great leadership — successful planning depends not on process, but on leaders who come forward dedicating and committing themselves to change. The planning has already yielded great lay leadership, and I believe that we will have a great team of clergy to assist these leaders and shepherd the process.”

Father Brian Albino, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, will remain in his role to assist while Father Juan Carlos Muñoz-Montoya will serve as parochial vicar for the cathedral, St. Stanislaus and Good Shepherd parishes.

“The first and most important thing is honoring the traditions of each of the parishes and especially those that are closing,” Father Washburn said. “I think St. Anne’s is not only a loss for the parishioners, it’s not only a loss for the City of Fall River, it’s also a loss for the diocese. It has been a very important Spiritual place for a long time. I remember just in my own experience when I was starting to discern my vocation back in the early 1990s, St. Anne’s was a place that I would go because it was well-known as just a beautiful place to go and pray. I’m sure there are countless stories like that.

“With St. Anne’s and the Holy Cross and Holy Rosary chapels, we really have to not just look at this from the perspective of a closure, but respecting the loss that it is for each of those communities and the grief involved. One of my goals is to find a way to honor and remember them as we move forward. The other piece of that is, of course, to welcome them. We want to make sure that everyone who is losing a church location right now, doesn’t lose the Church.”

Father Washburn admitted the greatest challenge for him will be to respect and honor the past while building for the future.

“The whole idea of giving this a single name of the Catholic Community of Central Fall River is to create a common identity,” Father Washburn said. “It’s a balancing act where we are at the same time creating an identity, but we don’t want to let go of an identity. In other words, it’s not a generic name, but it’s the Catholic Community of Central Fall River at Good Shepherd Parish, at St. Stanislaus, and at the Cathedral of St. Mary. It’s a way of taking these individual places, respecting their unique history and the unique gifts that they offered to the city, but also finding a way to have a common identity in the midst of them.”

While the notion of losing a landmark church like St. Anne’s is “never comfortable for anyone,” Father Washburn said the ever-changing demographics in the Fall River Diocese and the Church, in general, have made it necessary to adapt with the times.

“I said to the bishop when he asked me to take on this position that I reject the notion that we are on a steady decline into nothing, but rather it’s a matter that the Church is changing as the Church always does over time,” Father Washburn said. “And what we’re finding now is that the model of the inner-city Church, ethnically-based that worked so well for so long isn’t working now. So we need to create a model that works and I’m sure to the degree that we can find that model, we’re going to grow. So this is not going to be just about what gets closed now, or what gets closed next. But this is going to be a moment of new birth and rebirth for the City of Fall River.”

“We are better positioned as a community of faith to confront our challenges collaboratively, not separately, as individual parishes,” Bishop da Cunha wrote in his letter. “And it is also evident to me that the Fall River parishes currently engaged in the planning process could benefit from the support and affirmation of other neighboring parishes.”

To that end, Father Washburn said he was pleased to learn that St. Anne’s Parish had already begun a collaborative Faith Formation program with the neighboring parishes of Good Shepherd and St. Stanislaus about a year-and-a-half ago.

“So that’s one really good thing at least, because one of my initial thoughts was just feeling for families who have children in Faith Formation, and obviously now wondering where their child would make their First Communion or Confirmation or those kinds of things,” he said. “So it’s good to know that was already integrated into a more collaborative program.

“But perhaps the most important task of all is to really let all the parishioners from St. Anne’s, from Holy Rosary, and from Holy Cross know how welcome they are in this new collaborative effort — whichever of the four churches they decide to make their new home — and just know how glad we are to welcome them and to welcome their gifts and their talents into this new community.”

Father Washburn stressed that he doesn’t plan to make wholesale changes at the beginning.

“I’m not coming in on November 1 with a new Mass schedule and new plans for this, that and the other,” he said. “As the bishop wrote in his letter to all of the communities, this is a wonderful moment for strong lay leadership, so I’m going to come in with ears ready to listen to parishioners. Yes, we will have a new plan, and yes, I’m sure that there will be changes and new initiatives and new ideas and all that, but they’re going to come from the community. We’re going to do this together in an open, transparent way where laity and clergy are working together to build this new community.”

With his new assignment taking effect October 31 and the final Mass celebration at St. Anne’s Church planned for November 25, Father Washburn will have some time to transition into his new role as rector/parochial administrator. For now, he’s just planning to ease into it and start “meeting the people.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting all of the parishioners and hearing their individual stories and getting to know this community,” he said. “I was thinking one of the honors of being a priest is the ways that people invite you into their lives and they invite you into the most important parts of their lives. So it’s a joy for me to share their stories, to walk now on this new chapter of the journey with them and just to be part of this — what I think is a new, exciting initiative in the city.”

© 2020 The Anchor  †  887 Highland Avenue  †  Fall River, Massachusetts 02720