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Spotlight Report

Dorchester parish struggles to survive

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/4/2004

John Serena of Dorchester took part in a sparsely attended 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass offered in Spanish at St. Peter's Church in December. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Dolly Almonte (right) of Dorchester participating with her family in an 11:30 a.m. Mass. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Kay Donovan, 86, of Quincy, has volunteered for the last 40 years to count the collections at St. Peter's. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Bao Tinh, 6, is among the students who attend first-grade Sunday school at St. Peter's School. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

St. Peter's Church
311 Bowdoin St., Dorchester
Mass languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese
School: 173 pupils in grades K-8
Estimated weekly collection: $1,700
2003-2004 budget: $565,000 for school, $199,000 for church, rectory and convent
Repair bills: $3.25 million estimated over next 7 years

St. Peter's neighborhood

The old-timers call St. Peter's The Rock. They talk of the days when there were 10 Masses on a weekend, when the convent was full of nuns and the schools packed with children, when the ushers wore tuxedos to High Mass at the Dorchester church.

But now the convent is empty, attendance at Mass is sparse, the school population has shrunk to one-fifth its former size. The church has no pastor, and is so desperate for cash that, after the last cut in the subsidy from the archdiocese, the priest in charge sold the rectory artwork and furniture, as well as the dining room set.

And the makeup of the parish has been transformed. The Irish-Americans who filled the parish are almost entirely gone now; the neighborhood is dominated by immigrants from Cape Verde, while the largest group of worshipers at the church is from Vietnam.

As Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley prepares to close scores of parishes around the Archdiocese of Boston, he will face dozens of heart-rending decisions, but few more complex than this.

There are plenty of reasons to close St. Peter's: it has too little money, too few people, five aging buildings that need millions of dollars in work, and it is located in a neighborhood surrounded by newer Catholic churches that could easily absorb St. Peter's congregation.

But there are also compelling reasons to keep St. Peter's open.

Even in its weakened state, it is still one of the most prominent institutions in one of Boston's most desperate neighborhoods, Bowdoin/Geneva, which is populated by the poor and immigrants whom O'Malley has vowed to serve. Its school, although struggling, appears to be growing stronger. And St. Peter's after-school program and teen center are oversubscribed.

The worshiping community, although small and divided into three language groups -- English, Spanish, and Vietnamese -- is unusually diverse and trying to become a rare model of integration at a house of worship. And the church itself is a beloved monument of some architectural significance, boasting a sanctuary uninterrupted by columns or pillars and a vaulted wooden ceiling decorated with painted medallions representing virtues that will surely be needed in the church's season of uncertainty: hope, faith, and fortitude.

The parishioners include devoted souls like Agnes Manning, a 100-year-old immigrant from Galway, Ireland, who worked for years as the cook at St. Peter's rectory, where on Saturday nights she would make dinner for eight priests.

And then there are newcomers like An LeDang, the 57-year-old great-grandson of a canonized Catholic martyr, who spent eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp before fleeing by boat and making it to the United States.

Manning and LeDang don't know one another, but, like many of St. Peter's parishioners, they share a fear that their parish will close.

Some of St. Peter's parishioners don't follow the news -- many don't speak English -- but those who have seen the headlines worry that O'Malley's plans to consolidate the archdiocese's 357 parishes over the course of the year could mark the final chapter in the proud history of their 130-year-old church. Was this Christmas season St. Peter's last?

"In my gut, I feel like they're going to close us, but I want to be proven wrong," said Charles D. Millett, 53, one of the old-timers who moved into the parish in 1974 and stayed, donning a Santa suit over Christmas to pose for pictures with the mostly Cape Verdean pupils at St. Peter's School. "Financially, we've made some inroads in the past six months. Our school is not the strongest, but it's certainly not the weakest. And I'm hoping that, when they take a look at St. Peter's, the fact that we're very much an immigrant community will help. The parish is vital to this community, and to close St. Peter's would do serious harm."

But even St. Peter's strongest supporters acknowledge that other parishes can offer similar arguments in their own defense.

"I'd love to see the parish stay," said Patricia J. Linehan, 68, who has lived in St. Peter's parish her whole life. "I think it offers quite a service to the neighborhood. But I'm sure every parish is going to say the same thing. Everybody believes their place is the best."

A long history

St. Peter's Church is a great Gothic structure, built of Roxbury pudding stone excavated from the very site on which the church now stands. Dorchester's second Catholic parish -- it was formed in 1872 from territory that had been assigned to St. Gregory's Church in Lower Mills -- St. Peter's Church anchors a parish complex that is evidence of the ambition and achievement of Boston's Catholics. The campus, which straddles Bowdoin Street, includes a rectory, a convent, and two school buildings, as well as the church itself.

The convent, which once housed 30 nuns, is now largely vacant, and the one nun left on the faculty of St. Peter's School is poised to retire. No pastor has lived at St. Peter's for nearly a decade; the rectory is home to two Vietnamese priests, one of whom is assigned to a Chelsea parish. One of the school buildings is rented to the Boston public schools; the other is still a parochial school, with 173 pupils, down from 1,100 in 1967.

In its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, St. Peter's was home to an estimated 26,000 Catholics, most of whom went to Mass at least once a week.

The church, which seats 1,200 people in its main sanctuary and another 1,100 downstairs, was almost always packed, at times holding three simultaneous Masses, including one in a school hall.

"Years ago it was standing room only at the Masses, and the ushers wore tuxedos, or white tie and tails, every Sunday at 11 -- it was a real class church," said Mary R. Boze, 61, who has been attending St. Peter's for 30 years. "Up until maybe 10 years ago there was a midnight Mass for Christmas, but they had to stop that because of problems with some of the teenagers in the neighborhood. They made it at 7 or 8 so people could get home safely."

Today, the parish says average weekly attendance at Mass is 1,000, but a Globe visit to all five Masses the weekend of Dec. 13-14 found attendance at about half that level.

A 4 p.m. Mass Saturday afternoon was attended by 18 people, who gathered on metal folding chairs in the rectory dining room under a chandelier with three blown light bulbs. The 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, in English, drew 40 people, few enough that people waved to one another, rather than walk the distance to shake hands, when offering the sign of peace.

About 170 people came to an English-language family Mass at 9:30; another 50 to a Spanish-language Mass at 12:30, and 250 to a Vietnamese Mass at 4. Snow had begun to fall just before the start of the Vietnamese Mass, so the Globe checked the next weekend's attendance and found 300 worshipers present.

As at many churches, attendance at daily Mass is lower. The daily Mass in English, at 7 a.m., has withered away to almost nothing: on Tuesday, Dec. 16, just one worshiper was present. A daily Mass in Vietnamese, at 6 p.m., is doing much better: on Thursday, Dec. 18, 45 people participated.

Even Christmas isn't a huge draw. On Christmas Eve, about 135 people attended the English Mass at 7 p.m.; two hours later, a more vibrant Vietnamese Mass, with a large choir and children re-enacting the birth of Christ, attracted about 450.

Not surprisingly, the parish has struggled financially. Many of its parishioners have low incomes, and many send a significant fraction of what they earn back to family in their countries of origin.

Kay Donovan, 86, who for the last 40 years has counted the collection for the church, says the amount gathered each weekend dropped from $25,000 when she began to $700 last year, but has risen this year to about $1,700. The weekend of Dec. 14, the collection was $1,438.60.

"It's kind of sad when you think back to what it was," says Donovan, who moved to Quincy 33 years ago after her mother was mugged on Bowdoin Street.

Rising costs

Costs, meanwhile, have risen dramatically, particularly as the school has had to replace a faculty made up entirely of unpaid nuns with laypeople, who work for about half what they would make in public school, but not for free. The parish expects to spend $565,000 this year to run its school, and $199,000 to run the church, rectory, and convent.

The church's support from the archdiocese has dropped, reflecting the broader church's financial troubles. St. Peter's once received a $24,000 monthly subsidy from the archdiocese; last year it got $12,000 a month; this year $8,000.

Nonetheless, the church's leaders have a plan. In the absence of a pastor, the church is overseen by an administrator, the Rev. Daniel J. Finn, the pastor of nearby St. Mark's church, and two pastoral associates, Sisters Sally McLaughlin and Glenna Connors, who are members of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, long associated with St. Peter's.

The three say they are on budget this year. They have slashed costs, keeping heat so low in the church that worshipers wear parkas, cutting off amenities such as cable television to the rectory, and trying to beef up fund-raising. Despite the grandeur of their sanctuary, they try to save money by holding winter worship in the church's basement, which is less expensive to heat, but that plan was thwarted this year by the bursting of a frozen pipe, which has rendered the lower church unusable.

Help from many quarters

St. Peter's does receive help from a variety of contributors, including more affluent parishes, some of which send contributions; individuals like Barry O'Brien of Berlin, who provides scholarships for numerous pupils; institutions such as Lesley University, which has helped to stabilize high school faculty turnover by providing teacher training; former parishioners, who raised $19,000 at a reunion in October, and volunteers, such as a group of nuns with Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, who live in the parish and help teach religious education on Sunday.

The priest and nuns argue the parish should not be judged on statistics alone. "The community of believers is not just those who attend church on Sunday," Finn says.

At Finn's urging, parishioners have increased their contributions to collection, and have pledged $200,000 to the archdiocesan capital campaign, well over the parish's $75,000 target. And parish leaders now want to take a more dramatic step -- selling or leasing the rectory, the convent, and one of the two school buildings to private tenants, and using the income to fund ongoing operations.

But they acknowledge they are not sure how to pay for upkeep of the aging parish buildings. A study by the archdiocese this year estimated that the church needs a new roof as well as repairs to walls and windows, with a total price tag of $2.5 million. And that doesn't include the cost of installing a bathroom in the church, which has none, or making it handicapped accessible -- a major issue in a church with 29 steps between sidewalk and sanctuary. Already, poverty has taken a visible toll: two decades ago, the church's steeple was deemed structurally unsound, and, unable to finance the repair, the parish simply took it down.

On a chilly Saturday night just before Christmas, about 150 Vietnamese-Americans gathered at St. Peter's School for the Vietnamese parishioners' annual fund-raiser, a mix of traditional and modern skits, dances and songs, and a buffet dinner. Although St. Peter's is what is known as a territorial parish, drawing members from its neighborhood, for many Vietnamese Catholics, St. Peter's is a parish of choice. Many come here even though they live in other parts of Dorchester, or in suburbs such as Milton and Randolph.

For years, the Christmas fund-raiser has benefited impoverished children in Vietnam. But this year, the beneficiary is St. Peter's itself. A painted poster above the school stage depicts the facade of St. Peter's, with a cluster of hands reaching up out of the roof and holding up a cross.

"We are very worried about St. Peter's -- if they close, we don't know where we will go," said Loc Ly, 50, of Abington, who converted from Buddhism to Catholicism at St. Peter's five years ago.

An LeDang, the man whose great-grandfather was martyred -- killed by a Vietnamese king because of his faith -- promised himself that, even after he moved from Dorchester to Milton, he would return to St. Peter's for Mass every day, and he does.

"Anything that happens to St. Peter's happens to our community, be it happiness or sadness," LeDang says. "We try to do our best to contribute to the church, but we are a young community in this country, and the church needs more."

The Cape Verdean community, which for years has been centered at St. Patrick's Church in Roxbury, has begun to assert itself at St. Peter's. Parish leaders have resisted adding a mass in Portuguese, saying they want to forge friendships between whites and blacks by having them worship together, but the church has recently added pre-Mass programming in Portuguese and Crioulo to help Cape Verdeans understand the Sunday readings.

An obvious need

The Rev. Robert J. Carr, a parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross who ministers to the dwindling Spanish-speaking population at St. Peter's, calls the parish "a tragic situation."

"I have no idea what the future of that parish it is . . . but I can't think of any place that needs a church more," he said. "But if we were an evangelical church, we'd jump all over [the neighborhood]. Just down the street, the Church of God put a church in on Quincy Street -- they know the vision. It all comes down to a vision of who we are as Christians."

The role of ethnic minorities in strengthening the parish is somewhat ironic. Many of the church's white members fled the parish in the aftermath of busing, uncomfortable as the neighborhood's ethnic mix began to change. But today, the parish's diversity may be its salvation -- parish leaders of all ethnic groups are acutely aware that O'Malley has made immigrants and the poor a priority.

Parishioners are, however, concerned that the archdiocese's failure to appoint a pastor reflects a secret plan to close the church. Some believe priests are unwilling to work in such a poor parish with so many challenges. "It's hard to find priests interested in working with minorities, or in the inner city," said the Rev. John L. Doyle, the 76-year-old former pastor, a Dorchester native who had worked for 25 years in Bolivia and requested that his final assignment be to an inner city parish in Boston. "Those were the best six years of my career. I wanted to spend the last part of my career in a place where people were up against it."

Agnes Manning, the former rectory cook, now lives directly across the street from the church, in an efficiency apartment in an elderly housing development owned by the Boston Housing Authority. Most days, when the sun isn't so glaringly bright that she has to keep her shades down, Manning gazes out the window and watches the comings and goings at her beloved parish.

"St. Peter's is a lovely church -- it's big and it's beautiful -- and oh, there used to be an awful lot of weddings," Manning said. "I like St. Peter's to be open, and it's nice to see people coming out of the church. I hope God is helping to get people into it."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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