In one parish, the state of the church

Those who serve are the focus of ''Scenes From a Parish.'' Those who serve are the focus of ''Scenes From a Parish.''
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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The Vatican is trying to rouse Catholics' ire toward Ron Howard's upcoming "Angels & Demons" without giving the blockbuster drama exactly the publicity it craves. Here's an idea then: Steer the faithful, and everyone else, to "Scenes From a Parish," a surpassingly lucid little documentary playing at the Museum of Fine Arts over the next few weeks. It raises more questions about the church's place in a changing world - and touches more emotions doing so - than any big-budget studio folderol.

Director James Rutenbeck spent four years filming at St. Patrick Parish in South Lawrence, capturing the daily life of the Rev. Paul O'Brien and his large, unruly flock. The church and its economically prostrate community are in a long transition from predominantly Irish-American to predominantly Hispanic, and the young, energetic priest wants to serve everyone, delivering parts of his services in Spanish. "There are many people who resent me for many things I do," O'Brien notes, preferring those who confront him directly to those who leave nasty anonymous voicemails.

Rutenbeck gets some of that fear on camera when one little old lady parishioner accuses the newcomers: "They know English and don't want you to know they know." For every one of her, though, there's a Peggy Oliveto, a longstanding church lay member who tirelessly works with unwed mothers in the neighborhood, or a Frank Martin, who organizes grocery drives while admitting to having his faith shaken by the fact of local absentee fathers.

New arrivals to St. Patrick's include Rosaura Vasquez, a young woman who's drawn in by the sacred music of the place and befriended by the church's musical director, Pat Romeo, and Elvys Guzman, a Dominican immigrant desperate to shed his street-gangster skin for new raiment. The gap between spiritual yearning and grace yawns wide, though. Oliveto sees one of the women she helps, by now a close friend, fall back into bad habits, and Vasquez has a crisis of sexuality that threatens to drive her from the church. "I want to find someplace where we'll both be accepted," she sadly says about her new lover, "and I know the Catholic Church is not it."

"Scenes From a Parish," in other words, is about the struggle of a nearly 2,000-year-old religious tradition to function as a daily living faith. Instead of lecturing us about the tug of war between compromise and orthodoxy, Rutenbeck documents it with cool compassion, showing us human beings finding solace and challenge within the walls of St. Patrick's. The emphasis is on Christian works, and the underlying message is that a church is defined as much by the people in it as by the priests who lead it. Rome in this movie is very far away, and the work is at hand.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to


Directed by: James Rutenbeck

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through April 17

Running time: 85 minutes


In English and Spanish, with subtitles