By: Tara Kerrigan Hayes
When Rev. Brian Clary and Rev. Bob Connors arrived at The Collaborative of St. Brendan / St. Ann in June of 2018, they inherited a litany of challenges, from structural problems of deferred maintenance in upwards of 2 million dollars, to a $750,000 combined debt to the Archdiocese, as well as a dwindling number of parishioners. Then there was, of course, the stigma of the past.
The Dorchester churches are not alone in diving attendee numbers considering the growing number of the nondenominational these days, as well as a demographic shift as more families move out of neighborhoods. It was, however, hit hard by the sex abuse crisis of 2002, which continues to haunt. Considering these two particular parishes were affiliated the major perpetrators, the community still bears deep, painful wounds. In an interview with Father Clary, he speaks candidly and articulately, not only about the past, but on the future of St. Brendan and his hopes for this community he has come to hold so dear. “People are still hurting from the scandal, and understandably so, then the summer of shame resurrected all of that pain again.”
He talks about the first open meeting with the community. To his surprise, there were over 300 attendees, though many of them came to vent and express contempt about the scandalous history. The second meeting was more of the same, but by the third meeting Father Clary made it a point to address the importance of looking towards the future as well as addressing the past. He explored the process of pastoral planning and how to be pro-active and mission based in attempting to save the parishes. And in turning to the community for assistance, he was amazed at how quickly he was met with an incredible outpouring of support, despite the scars that continue to heal.
“It was astonishing the way this community sprang to action”, says Father Clary. Volunteers went canvassing, engaging with neighbors, dropping flyers. They also planned a Gala Fundraiser (amongst other ideas), not only to raise money, but also to boost church attendance.
One of the biggest supporters was Dorchester’s own, Mayor Marty Walsh, who attended last year’s Gala Fundraiser at Florian Hall and raised $5,000 in mere minutes (by auctioning off four footballs autographed by Tom Brady). “But more valuable than the funds”, Father Clary says, “were Marty’s words to the crowd”, saying to the attentive audience, “the church has always been there for each of you, and now it’s time to be there for the church”. He also recently met with Father Connors and Father Clary for a long lunch to discuss the fate of the parishes, offering his assistance. “He is a faithful, Dorchester Catholic”, Father Clary says of Mayor Walsh, fondly.
Of the $100,000 goal of Gala Fundraiser, the community managed to raise $88,000, which was then split between the two parishes. Impressive as the numbers were, it would not be enough to keep them out of danger. “Typically, such a fundraiser would go to something tangible (i.e. a new church addition), says Father Clary, “not in recent history has a church been in such a need to simply meet operational day-to-day expenses”.
“But even if by some miracle we suddenly had a private benefactor who donated 3 million dollars”, he adds, “we’d still end up with two very beautiful museums. We need more parishioners.”
He credits the community with creative ideas to increase attendance, from a mass to support youth hockey, to a grandparent’s mass and an outdoor mass at Pope John Paul park that brought out a whopping 450 attendees. But that seems to have been the peak. In October they were required to report their numbers to the Archdiocese to make assessments. Numbers that have since decreased.
“As great as the community has been”, says Father Clary, “we have hit a plateau”. With parish facilities still in dire straits and attendance decreasing again, Father Clary is rightfully concerned, yet optimistic about the resilience and faith of the community. “The people of Dorchester are like the people of Southie. They rise if the face of crisis”, says Father Clary. “But we can’t stay in crisis mode forever”.
When asked plainly what he thinks will happen with the parishes, he is completely transparent. “It’s anyones guess at this point”, he says, “As priests it’s our duty to make sure people are receiving their sacraments. We are in it for the long haul. And Dorchester has a strong Catholic Community that will continue to practice their faith. But what that looks like in terms of space is the question at hand. Right now, we are on a faith journey together, and my plea to the community is this, “let us gather, not scatter”.
In speaking with Father Clary, his warmth for this community and sincerity to want to help is clear, as well as his hopes to collectively find a solution to keep both parishes operating. He reiterates that both himself and Father Connors are approachable and open to thoughts and ideas from the people. “When we first arrived, there were rumors flying that we were here to close the churches, when in fact we are here to try to help. If anyone has any questions or concerns, they are always welcome to visit or call. We are all in this together. We really are at this point, a team”.
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