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At Last, at Long Last, Home

From the broom closet in the back of the gymnasium, they take the chalices and the large decorated Easter candles in their gilt holders and the crucifixes and carry them, one at a time, across the basketball court, out into the courtyard around the side of the church, and gather there. Ron Fortin fumbles with the keys and finds the lock to the big oak door. There are perhaps a dozen of them, all members of the Committee to Save St. Joseph’s Church. They squeal and giggle like excited teenagers. The door to St. Joseph’s opens, and they begin to file in, quietly at first, and then someone begins to sing “This Is Holy Ground,” the hymn they had sung so often during their 13-month occupation of the building (“Miracle at St. Joseph’s,” November 1993). They barely get through the first verse before they are overcome by tears, and they turn and hug each other. At last, at long last, they are home.

Their tears this summer day are tears of joy, different from the bitter tears they wept on the day, more than three years ago, when policemen took their elbows and led them out of this building for what they at times believed was the last time.

Four and a half years ago Bishop Timothy Harrington told them their church would be torn down, a decision that had mystified everyone from the start and bred bad blood all over Worcester, especially within the Worcester Diocese, the second-largest Catholic diocese in New England. Grafton Hill, the French quarter in Worcester, is crowned with the spire of St. Joseph’s, a huge brick building built 69 years ago. The parishioners were horrified, and they felt betrayed. They refused to leave, and for 13 months they kept a round-the-clock vigil inside the church. No one, not even a bishop, was going to take their church from them.

The day after the eviction, with sheets of plywood nailed over the brilliant stained-glass windows, the parishioners of St. Joseph’s were back on the sidewalk, where they prayed and sat and stood, like eternal flames. Just as they never left their church after Bishop Harrington declared it “unsafe,” they never left the sidewalk, hanging purple ribbons on the fence and hand-lettered signs declaring “We Believe in Miracles.” They were there, every evening at seven, to say the rosary. In summer they brought cold drinks to refresh themselves. In winter they wrapped themselves like mummies and wore socks heated with batteries to keep their feet from freezing. Some, in their eighties, declared it would be the last thing that they did – to see the inside of their church again.

Sometimes as many as 250 people gathered on the sidewalk outside the church to say Mass. Sometimes only ten or 20. But there were always some. They kept their choir and their church committees intact. The only thing they were missing was a building, not just a building but their building, the beautiful structure known as St. Joseph’s. A year and a half passed while they worshipped on the sidewalk, creating something of a traffic hazard on the days when their numbers swelled.

At last Bishop Harrington retired, and a new bishop, Daniel Reilly, who came to them from Norwich, Connecticut, was installed. Their hopes soared that he might reverse Bishop Harrington’s decision to demolish St. Joseph’s. Soon after his installation, Bishop Reilly took pity on them, standing out there in the heat and in the cold and in the rain and in the snow, and he allowed them to go into the gymnasium of the recreation hall next door to the church, also closed. They could worship there, he said, while he studied the situation.

This was new life, new hope. The parishioners found an old altar and painted it white and trimmed it in gold and put it up on the dark old stage beneath the basketball hoops. Olive Goulet stitched long white drapes to hang behind the altar and hide the old stage curtains. Every Saturday night a few of them went over to the gym and rolled out the altar and set up 200 folding chairs for the faithful. On Easter, Bishop Reilly came to the gym and helped them celebrate Mass. There were tears, even from the bishop, who was beginning to see their faith and who was moved by their determination and by their numbers.

Linda Shea, one of the original members of the Save St. Joseph’s Committee, had slept on the marble floor of the church every Wednesday and Friday nights of the 13-month occupation. A year after the eviction, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gradually she lost her mobility. Gradually she lost the ability to speak. Gradually she lost the ability to do anything on her own, even to feed herself. She wrote a letter to the bishop. She asked to go into the church, one last time – please. The bishop went to visit her, and he sat with her and he saw her faith and her love for her church. He agreed that he would go to St. Joseph’s with her. The word went round that the bishop was going to take Linda into the church.

It was a bitter cold day when nearly two feet of snow fell on the city of Worcester. When Linda arrived in her wheelchair in a special van, hundreds of supporters had gathered outside the church. With her came her family and Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and a few other members of the committee. It was January of 1995, the first time any of them had been inside St. Joseph’s in more than two years, and it was the first time the bishop had ever seen the inside of this magnificent building. Terry Turgeon remembers the day as clearly as she remembers the births of her four children. “I was so afraid that there would have been damage, that somehow the church would have deteriorated from neglect. But it was like someone had been in there cleaning. There wasn’t even any dust. I thought it was miraculous.”

They saw tears in the bishop’s eyes as he moved down the aisles and visited the carved alabaster stations of the cross. He climbed the stairs to the organ loft, where the oil paintings in the ceiling can be seen more clearly, and he asked if anyone there knew how to play the organ. A nun who was with them sat down and played. Music from the grand Casavant organ, known to be one of the most beautiful organs in the entire city, swelled into the vaulted ceilings. Those who gathered inside sang “How Great Thou Art.” The bishop sang, louder than anyone. Someone opened the window in the choir loft and the music filtered out through the driving snow, down to the parishioners below. Snow was piled high on their hats, their shoulders, their eyebrows. They looked like snow people, but they were elated and they sang, their mouths open to the falling snow.

Linda Shea died six months later. Her other wish, that her funeral be conducted inside St. Joseph’s, was denied. But some believed that by leading Bishop Reilly inside St. Joseph’s, by showing him the beauty of this unusual church, Linda Shea started the wheels turning that eventually reversed the decision to close St. Joseph’s.

Her final wish, of course, was that St. Joseph’s would reopen, that the church come alive again. This wish, shared by so many others, even those in distant parts of the country who by now had heard of the struggle at St. Joseph’s, is beginning to come true on this night. Bishop Reilly has given his permission to reopen the church. The red tape of the city occupancy ordinances is slowly being hacked through. The parishioners have not yet raised all the money needed to make the necessary repairs – some $600,000 – but they are confident, and tonight they have gathered in anticipation of their first Mass. Lou Dagostino has brought her ironing board and her iron, and she sets it up in the aisle and snakes a cord out from the sacristy. From the drawers they bring the pink and white Easter banners that they made years ago for their Easter Mass. They have chosen to hang these banners for symbolic reasons. Lou irons, Dutch Demers gets out the 12-foot stepladder, and Lou’s husband, Dan, helps him carry it down the aisle. A human chain is set up, and as fast as Lou presses a banner, she passes it to Dutch, who carries it up the ladder and, using a yardstick, hangs it. Four women below eyeball it and tell him when it’s straight. Dutch’s wife, Helen, the organist at St. Joseph’s for more than 15 years, goes upstairs, unlocks the organ, and quietly begins to play. “I don’t want to disturb them,” she says. “But I want them to hear the music.”

Ron Fortin is on his knees, sweeping between the pews. “I always believed this would happen,” he said as he entered the church. Now he sweeps with gentle strokes, as much in prayer as in gratitude, for he knows even better than he did four years ago that every gesture he makes for this church makes a difference. A month ago the boards were taken off the windows. The man who came to remove the boards got down from his ladder when he was finished and said to Terry, “The light is back inside.”

“I don’t think he knew how really true that was,” she said later. Terry has kept her own vigil, a small table in her bedroom on which she placed objects from St. Joseph’s – a stone from the yard, three rose petals she found in the street one day in front of the church, a pigeon feather she found on the floor the day they went in with Linda Shea, a candle, always lit. From her porch, she can see the steeple. She has given an inordinate amount of time to this hope in the past four years. Tonight she is effervescent. “I had times when I was discouraged. I had times when I was very down. But I never gave up. I couldn’t.”

Sunday, August 4, 1996: The banners have been hung, the sanctuary is filled with bouquets from their gardens and massive arrangements donated by local florists. The sign outside, which once read, “We Believe in Miracles,” has been painted over to read, “Welcome Home. Thank You, Lord.”

The opening Mass, to be read by Bishop Reilly, has been scheduled for 2:00 P.M., but by noon the church is already filling. They are coming in their best dresses, the men wearing ties and jackets. This is no ordinary Mass. The children are dressed as if for Easter. Many come to the side building first, laden with trays of sandwiches and cakes and cookies for the reception afterward. Ron Fortin is out front, greeting everyone. He is wearing his best suit and a red carnation in his lapel. Priests, who dared not come inside the church during the occupation, come forward now, some of them bearing cameras, and before they settle in a pew, they take pictures of the glorious sight of the altar decked with flowers and the tabernacles bedazzled with garlands and with lights. Clara Papagno, one of the stalwarts who kept the nightly vigils and slept on the hard floor to save her church, is in the front pew. Pinned to her dress is a photograph of Linda Shea and a note that reads, “Thank you for helping us save St. Joseph’s Church.” As the crowd grows, she puts her head in her hands and she weeps.

By one, the church is filled, and the late-comers sidle down the aisles and find a place where they might be able to see. The noise inside the church is deafening, and those who kept the vigil on those silent nights inside the church listen in wonder. Inevitably, the crowd spills out of the church, toward the sidewalk.

When Bishop Reilly arrives, there rises a cheer. In his brilliant green robe he starts down the aisle. A powerful cloud of incense precedes him, mixing with the already strong fragrance of the lilies. It is as if the pope had come to Worcester. They hold out their hands to him, some stand on the pews and on the kneelers, waving and shouting. He takes his time, greeting as many as he can, squeezing their outstretched hands and giving hugs to those, such as Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and Clara Papagno, with whom he has worked toward this day. The cheers and the applause, the shouts and the whistles last for more than five minutes as he comes down the aisle.

At last he is there, and he kneels and places a gentle kiss on the marble altar, the true altar of St. Joseph’s Church. He turns to the silenced crowd, and he says, “Your prayers have been answered….The hard hearts have softened….Welcome home.” And then, in French, he cries out, “Bienvenu chez vous!” They answer with a joyful noise.

The Mass is long and full of meaning, and when it is complete, Bishop Reilly stretches his arms toward the congregation, and he says, “Let us go forth from this church filled with the spirit of St. Joseph’s Church and bring that spirit to the rest of the world.”

And together they go forth.