Into the light

She helped bring new life to a struggling church, then faced a threat to her own from cancer. The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette finally returns to the pulpit today, with an Easter story to tell.

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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SOMERVILLE — The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette blogged about her mouth sores and chemotherapy bruises. She sat in the pews of her church pale and bone-thin, bereft of her brilliant red hair, too exhausted to stay for coffee hour. She sometimes wore a sign to protect her immune system during the sharing of the peace: “No hugs today.’’

This morning, for the first time since she took a medical leave to treat a rare form of cancer that doctors detected three days before Palm Sunday last year, Baskette will stand in the pulpit of First Church Somerville UCC and preach. Her blue eyes are lively again, a thatch of new hair is coming in, and she’s optimistic she’ll live to see her young children grow up.

Easter, the day Christians celebrate the return of Jesus from the dead, “was very theoretical before,’’ she said.

“Now, I know it in my body, and the deepest part of my heart,’’ she said.

In the pews will be the people who sent cards and e-mailed prayers by the score, who left casseroles in the church freezer, who whisked the children off to play or left clues to hidden presents on their doorstep. Perhaps most importantly, they made sure the congregation flourished without the young minister who spent the past seven years helping to transform the struggling urban church into a small but thriving community.

“We didn’t want to become the sad church, the church whose pastor had cancer, because we knew that wasn’t what Molly wanted,’’ said Marlin Collingwood, a member of the choir.

Last March, Baskette was preparing for routine back surgery when a preoperative X-ray found a mass in her lung. Weeks later, doctors diagnosed Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive cancer that usually strikes adolescents in their bones.

Primary Ewing sarcoma of the lung is extremely rare — only about a dozen cases have been reported in all of medical literature, according to Baskette’s oncologist, Dr. James Butrynski, a specialist in sarcomas at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her treatment would require surgery and an intensive nine-month course of chemotherapy, a regimen that typically cures 70 to 80 percent of Ewing cases.

Baskette was 39 years old. She and her husband, Peter, whom she had met at Yale Divinity School, had an 8-year-old son, Rafael, and a 4-year-old daughter, Carmen.

“All I could think about was my own children being motherless,’’ she recalled.

Before Baskette arrived in 2003, the peeling stucco church on College Avenue was, like many urban mainline Protestant churches these days, in trouble, said Ian Tosh, the church moderator. Only a few dozen worshipers attended Sunday services, and the church was burning through its savings.

First Church started reaching out to the young families, aging Somervillians, youthful hipsters, and Tufts students in its Davis Square neighborhood. Setting a table out on the front sidewalk, congregants handed passersby candles at Christmas, plastic eggs at Easter, and, as a congregation that calls itself “open and affirming’’ to the gay community, cross-shaped rainbow lollipops on Pride Day. The congregation began sending volunteers as well as checks to local charities and established a welcoming team to greet newcomers.

Baskette was one reason many kept coming back. They were drawn to her preaching and knack for remembering the names of people who stopped by a few times a year. She could transform a conversation over coffee at the Diesel Cafe, where she held weekly office hours, into a spiritual experience.

“I just affected cheerful abandon and utter confidence in the future that I didn’t always feel,’’ Baskette says now with a laugh.

The church’s finances slowly stabilized as the small band of regulars grew. But when Baskette was diagnosed with cancer, some wondered whether their congregation would founder.

“At that time, I thought, ‘This is all going to fall apart,’ ’’ said Toni Snow, 62, who rarely attended church before she found First Church. “At that time, my main connection was through Molly, and the power of her preaching and presence. What we’ve probably all learned is that our faith is much stronger than that, and that our community is quite strong.’’

As Baskette prepared to take a year of medical leave, the rest of the congregation pitched in to keep things running smoothly. Committee members set aside time during meetings to share what was going on in their lives, Tosh said — ministering to one another, in effect. A team of lay leaders recruited a talented support minister, Ian Holland, to fill in for Baskette.

“They weren’t rudderless,’’ said the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, associate conference minister to the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, who helped First Church through the transition. “They knew they needed to step up.’’

Baskette and her family leaned hard on a small circle of family and close friends, including a few from the congregation, for the core everyday support they needed. Peter Baskette, who had just started a new job in information technology at Boston University, had his hands full working and taking care of his family. He missed his wife’s quick mind, which had dimmed under the strong drugs, pain, and overwhelming fatigue.

The congregation, he said, “was amazingly respectful and gave us our space, but really there for almost any need I expressed.’’

Pastoral ethics set clear boundaries between clergy and congregants: Baskette could not ask her congregation for the same kind of pastoral support she gave them. And she wanted to reassure them that she had the help she needed. But she knew she couldn’t battle her disease privately, either. So she started a blog ( that became her church’s window into her life.

“One of my most important jobs is to model for people how to be a vulnerable, flawed human being,’’ she said. “If I’m human, they can be human, too.’’

She wrote about being sad and scared and exhausted, and about the ghostlike fevers that arrived without warning and sent her to the hospital, near death. She shared lighter moments, like a video that her son filmed in which she and her daughter modeled the gallery of head coverings she had collected over three seasons of chemo-induced baldness. And she meditated on God’s role in all of it.

“God is luring us toward the greatest good, but sometimes [often] we have to pass through the terrible to get there,’’ she wrote in August.

Watching Baskette become so ill during chemotherapy was agonizing for the congregation.

“Even the littlest members of the church watched her lose all her hair,’’ said Snow, who survived a bout of breast cancer 30 years ago and sometimes drove Baskette to chemotherapy. “I think the hardest part was right near the end, when her white blood cell counts went so low, she actually had to wear a mask to church.’’

Thom Whittemore, the music director, focused on uplifting music to help carry Baskette and the congregation through.

“There was always this air of hope,’’ he said. “I never let myself think about the possibility of things not going well.’’

After her last week of chemotherapy in January, the choir sang the African-American gospel hymn “The Storm Is Passing Over.’’ In March, she threw a giant “Peach Fuzz’’ party at the parsonage to thank her vast support network and celebrate the return of her hair.

“Some people just fall apart,’’ her doctor, Butrynski, said. “Not that she didn’t cry or break down from time to time, but she was quite strong through this.’’

Baskette, who will return fully to her job in June, says her disease has helped her let go of some of her perfectionist tendencies. She no longer believes that it is up to her to hold her church together. And she says she has in some ways made peace with her own mortality.

“I don’t want to die, I want to live a long, beautiful life and see my children grow to adulthood. But I know it would be all right if I died,’’ she said.

“We Christians say Christ has conquered death, but that’s not true — death is right here, death is in Japan, in Afghanistan, everywhere,’’ she said. “But when you reach a place where you’re not afraid of death anymore, then death has died.’’

A few days before her much-anticipated Easter sermon, she was excited but “definitely feeling the pressure.’’

Sue Donnelly, a member of the congregation and a close friend, told her not to worry.

“I said to her, ‘You could stand up there and juggle Easter eggs — nobody cares,’ ’’ she said. “ ‘Because you’re present, your words are going to be redundant.’ ’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at