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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A catholic alternative


The church that many disillusioned Catholics are trying so hard to envision might already exist. A carpenter built it with his wife, Mary.

OK, so her name is really Amy, but the lack of a consonant does not detract from what the Rev. Peter and Amy DiSanto have created in a small cottage on a country road in Dover.

Reared as Catholics - he is a nephew of John A. Volpe, the late Massachusetts governor - the couple met as teenagers in Vermont at a prayer meeting of charismatic Catholics, a church subculture that is as spirited as the hierarchy is sedate.

Peter, 46, had grown up in Wakefield, practicing more conventional Catholicism and learning the building trades that support his extended family. He was not immune, however, from the tumult of the times.

When he met Amy, he was ''finding himself,'' working in Stowe on the farm of Maria Von Trapp, the former Austrian nun whose family's escape from the Nazis inspired the film, ''The Sound Of Music.'' ''There was a chapel and guitars. Every night we prayed and sang,'' he recalls. ''It was life-changing for me.''

Ironically, as his spirituality deepened his alienation from the church grew. He could not reconcile the teachings of Jesus with man-made rules that limited ordination to celibate men and denied the sacraments to the divorced or to members of other Christian denominations. Many of the same questions now roiling the church, about the role of the laity and the need for reform, prompted a small group to leave and form a church called the Community of the Crucified One, based in Pittsburgh. It not large enough or powerful enough to threaten Rome but it's very existence reflects the search for alternatives among Catholics that predates the scandal.

Peter and Amy DiSanto found a spiritual home at a small outpost the group established in Moretown, Vt. When family ties brought them to Dover, Peter aimed to establish a community here after his own ordination in that church. He and Amy led prayer meetings in their living room for 10 years while he pursued his religious studies. He scoured the real estate ads for a suitable, affordable property even as he continued to do the carpentry and home remodeling work that supported his growing family. The DiSantos have three children.

Then, five years ago, a neighbor offered to sell them his house. In Dover, even an aging cottage commands a princely sum. The DiSantos remortgaged their home and, literally, went to work. Peter gutted the interior, reinforcing the ceilings with steel beams for the sanctuary. He harvested the pine and oak that grace the ceilings and polished floors from land Amy's family owns in New Hampshire. The cherry altar he milled from a tree outside his office window.

Amy, meanwhile, bought several soot-encrusted and broken stained glass windows the archdiocese had salvaged from a fire. It took her more than a year to repair each one by hand. It took 21/2 years to complete the construction that DiSanto scheduled between remodeling jobs that continue to feed his family. He does not take a salary from the church.

Grace Church still looks like a house, the crucifix at its apex suggesting a rectory, perhaps. But, inside, there is no mistaking the mission. Their former disrepair is hard to imagine as the sun steams through stained glass likenesses of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The pews, the altar candles, and the Stations of the Cross came from Catholic parishes now closed.

On Sundays, the Rev. DiSanto celebrates a liturgy easily mistaken for the Roman Catholic Mass. ''We have retained the rituals and the traditions and dispensed with those rules that divide us,'' the pastor says. ''We would rather focus on what unites us as Christians.''

There is no membership book to sign, no tithe to make, no hierarchy to obey. The doors of Grace Church are open to all. On a typical Sunday, there might be 50 to 100 people in the pews. ''Why,'' asks the Rev. DiSanto, ''would anyone come to a church they didn't feel free to leave when the spirit moved them?''

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/29/2002.
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