instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Miracle at St. Joseph's

Only 49 of them were inside the church on the morning of July 23, when the police surrounded the building. The rest of the hundreds of parishioners of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church were at work or at home, doing any of the various things people have to do in their everyday lives. They could not all be there all of the time, even though for many of them, that would have been their wish. So for the past 13 months, since Bishop Timothy J. Harrington, the bishop of the Worcester Diocese, ordered their church closed, they had guarded the church in shifts, around the clock, sitting on duty throughout the day, sleeping there at night – and, more important, conducting services, daily and twice on Sundays. By the end they had occupied their church longer than any other dissident group in American history. Now, the moment that none of them had believed would come had come.

"Our bishop is evicting us!" Paul Bachand, 39 years old and a lifetime parishioner, cried as police led him from the broad and high brick-faced cathedral that some have called "the most beautiful church in Worcester." Though the order actually came from a judge, in their minds it was the bishop who was forcing them from the church they had built, paid for, cared for, and intended to keep. When they refused to comply, they were blocked from leaving, held inside the church, and 27 hours later they were brought out, one and two at a time, escorted by police, whose pained faces betrayed feelings of reluctance. Ken Desautels, who is still working on what is now a 1,300-page history of St. Joseph’s, was brought out, defiantly clutching a wooden cross. Janet Prunier, who with her twin sister had kept the vigil almost day and night, wept as she came out. "Are we a viable parish yet?" she cried, referring to the bishop's frequent statement that the people of St. Joseph's needed to prove they were a "viable parish." Terry Turgeon, divorced mother of four, whose coordinating efforts for the Committee to Save St. Joseph's Church had earned her the title of Command Central, and Ron Fortin, former custodian of the church and eloquent leader of the 450-member committee, were silent, brought out alone. The last to leave was Deacon Joe DuVarney, the only member of the Catholic clergy who on this day dared to cross the bishop's line. In tears, he turned to the reporters. "You people can investigate this! I beg of you, for the love of your fellow man, find out the real reason behind the closing of this church."

Outside, the crowd filled the street, a busy four-lane thoroughfare that passes through this section of Worcester known as French Hill. Two hours before, noting the size of the gathering at the 67-year-old church, the police had blocked off traffic. A white-haired woman waved a hand-painted placard: Jesus Wept. Et Tu Bishop? Some had been there all night, sleeping on the stone steps at the foot of the rough wooden cross the committeee had set there. Now with everyone removed from the church, a handsome young man took up the heavy cross. A ragtag line snaked after him through the lunch-hour crowds of the busy city to the bishop's office building. He laid the cross on the steps and then took coins from his pocket and threw them on the sidewalk, like in the Bible, the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas after he betrayed Jesus. The crowd threw more coins. They knelt, weeping, and kissed the cross. And they waited on the doorstep of the man many in this city address as Most Reverend and His Excellency, the man before whom all priests of the diocese must kneel and promise absolute obedience. They waited. At last Bishop Harrington appeared. Throughout his protracted legal battle he had never met with them. Dressed in black, the sleeves of his suit jacket shoved up to his elbows, he stepped into the heat. But at once his attention was diverted. He spotted the coins. He stooped and began to pick up the money.

* * *

I first came to St. Joseph's on a Sunday in June. Passing through Worcester on my way to somewhere else, I was curious, that was all, and I had a bit of spare time. The newspaper stories I had read were brief, referring to an "unsafe" building and steadfast parishioners, who had kept an around-the-clock vigil for 13 months. I knew that churches, especially Catholic churches, were closing around the country. There are so many, 30 in Worcester alone, large and expensive to maintain. It made sense to close some. But it was the lengthy vigil that intrigued me.

St. Joseph's was not hard to find. Bright purple ribbons streamed from the entryway. Hand-painted signs moved lightly in the breeze: "Come in and pray with us!"; St. Joseph's Belongs to the People!"; and "We believe in miracles!" Clusters of people gathered near the huge oak doors. I started up the steps. A pretty woman with dark, soulful eyes approached. This was Terry Turgeon, the one who many say started it all. With the pride of a mother, she invited me inside. Knowing now how many strangers have found their way to St. Joseph's, I can only imagine how many times she has done this, but as we stood in the back of the hushed sanctuary, she spoke with a whispered passion, as if I were the first she had told this story to. The bishop had ordered the church closed a year ago, claiming it needed some $400,000 in repairs. By May of 1992 they had received $620,000 in pledges, but he would not change his mind, nor would he meet with them to talk about it. "This church was built by my parents, my grandparents," she said. "We all share this story. He can't take this from us."

People came in and out, walking soundlessly down the polished marble aisle, genuflecting and then kneeling to pray in one of the heavy oak pews. Shiny yellow pillars broke up the huge space. White alabaster frescoes illustrated the Stations of the Cross. They were narrated in French (Jesus Tombe Pour Le Deuxième Fois) and bordered with tiny red-and-blue mosaics. A slender crucifix centered on a white marble altar dominated the front of the sanctuary.

"Where is the danger?" I asked. Terry took me outside and pointed up to a corner of the bell tower where a small section of the brick facing looked precarious. "That's it?" I asked.

"That's the dangerous part," she replied. "We had one fellow come here and tell us he could fix that for us for $2,000."

"But that's only cosmetic," I said. "Not structural."

"That's right," she said.

None of this made any sense to me. In time I would learn that other repairs were needed, but none seemed insurmountable. In fact, the building had been certified safe through 1995 by the Worcester building inspector. It was a beautiful church filled with passionate congregants who were apparently ready and willing to do what needed to be done. Why would any bishop want to close such a church?

* * *

It wasn't long before I returned to St. Joseph's. Terry led me to a back room of the church where the core members of the committee gathered around a big table. She introduced Ron Fortin and David and Giselle DesRoches.

A few things were clear. This was a unique parish. The parishioners of St. Joseph's Church had purchased the land and, in 1926, paid $500,000 to have the building erected. According to the committee, the parishioners had paid for all maintenance and alterations made to the church, without seeking loans from the diocese. This is the heart of the lawsuit that is still to be heard, one that will establish legal ownership of the property, which constitutes a full city block in downtown Worcester. The block has an estimated value of from $4 million to $6 million. The building's insured value is $2.25 million.

However, the bishop holds the deed to St. Joseph's, as he holds the deeds to all church properties in the diocese. No one at St. Joseph's ever thought that meant that he could sell the church out from under them. They firmly believe that is what the bishop did. And that is why, no matter how much money they are able to raise, they believe the bishop will not change his mind. "Because it's a done deal," Terry said, "and it has been for a long time."

* * *

The story of St. Joseph's should have been clear-cut: the need to consolidate the churches in a shrinking diocese. But no one was talking about that. Much was made, in the press and on the streets, of the possibility that the Irish-Catholic bishop favored the Irish-Catholic parishes. St. Joseph's has French-Canadian roots. In addition, people were telling me heart-rending stories of cases in Worcester of priests convicted of sexually abusing young boys. And they told me of other priests still to be tried. I also heard about activities that, if they were not crimes, were a decided breach of faith. Reporters told me of their exasperated efforts to pin down leads. The diocese does not have to abide by the same rules as a publicly owned corporation. Many of its activities are confidential, sealed in files few can see. Which may account for the rumors. The rumors of misconduct that I heard during my stay in Worcester could fill a notebook. My ears grew weary of the stories. True or false, they were a clear indication that all was not as it seemed.

* * *

A week before the final eviction in July, I sat on the steps of St. Joseph's with ten or 12 parishioners. It was nearly midnight, with a cool breeze and stars winking from beneath thin clouds. They reminisced about the past year. Every morning, five dozen doughnuts appeared in the vestibule before anyone was awake. No one yet knows who brought them. They told me how, during the December blizzard that had crippled much of the Northeast, the vigil at St. Joseph's continued, neighbors pulling pots of stew on sleds. "After we'd been here a couple of weeks," Terry said, "one guy drove up and called out, 'What do you guys need?' and we told him we could use a couple of air mattresses. A couple of hours later he came back with two boxes of air mattresses, brand-new. This happened all the time." Very early on, a group of women came into the church, their arms loaded with food. When they came out, they said, "We can't say what parish we are from, but we want you to know that we are with you."

Many of the parishioners told me that this had been the most beautiful experience of their lives and that even if the bishop succeeds in taking their building, he would never be able to take this greater feeling from them.

The diocese had forbidden priests to enter St. Joseph's. Instead, parishioners were invited next door to celebrate Mass in the basement of the rectory, sitting on old school chairs next to the washer and dryer. Few went. They regarded this as an insult. Though they held services every night, Mass, which requires a priest, had not been said in St. Joseph's in over a year. When priests came to St. Joseph's, they came in T-shirts and shorts and rarely identified themselves. The people of St. Joseph's learned to spot them – the ones who wear black socks with absolutely everything, one told me. The ones with the shiny black shoes, another said. Once, inside the church, I fell into conversation with a sharp-eyed older man who spoke passionately about the situation there. When I told him I was a reporter and asked him for his name, he drew back, "Oh no," he said. "If anyone knew I was here, it would be explosive." Later, I learned he, too, was a priest.

The people of St. Joseph's know, because the Worcester diocese is ultimately a small world and because some of their brothers and nephews and cousins are priests, that at least a few priests have implored the bishop to reconsider and give St. Joseph's back to her people. But still, no priest will publicly proclaim his support for those the bishop called "dissidents."

Linda Shea, a big, expressive woman who slept every Wednesday and every Friday night in the church from the beginning of the vigil, objected to the term. "I'm not a dissident," she said. "I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a member of this church, but I'm not a dissident. That's demeaning." She had a T-shirt printed up that said, "I am not a dissident. I'm a DESCENDANT of St. Joseph's Church."

Earlier in the evening an old woman made her way up the steps and took my elbow. She looked into my eyes and spoke with a terrible sense of urgency. "I never thought I would go against the bishop," she said. Those are the feelings of many. The Catholic hierarchy may seem like an anachronism to many in this free-wheeling 1990's society, but nonetheless it remains a powerful presence in this city. It is the abuse of the power inherent in this hierarchy that the people of St. Joseph's said they are fighting against, not their faith. They had written, individually and as a group, to Cardinal Law in Boston, asking for his help, but he offered none. Clara Papagno, a feisty 80-year-old who throughout the year had kept her Monday-night vigil, wrote to the Pope. She had saved up her money and offered to send him airfare so that he could fly to Worcester. She received no reply. Above all else, they felt abandoned.

At midnight, we went inside, the air filled with the smell of snuffed candles. A single light illuminated the crucifix at the altar. Terry liked to sleep up in front of the first pew. I spread my sleeping bag beside her. The sounds of zipping and the clank of cots unfolding resounded throughout the church. Some simply stretched out along the hard oak pews. Terry zipped her flannel sleeping bag around her and lay still. The great arched ceiling loomed above us, the chubby faces of angels faintly visible in the weak light. Terry talked quietly for a while. "The first nights we spent here, for the first few weeks, no one slept. We all sat up in the pews, and many of us cried. I cried all night, for nights." She spoke of her divorce and the death of her mother two years ago. All her trials and all her joys intersected here at St. Joseph's. She was silent for a while, lying on her back, looking up. And then she said, "Lying here at night, I've seen details in the ceiling that I've never seen before. I remember one night we tried to count all the angels. We walked around, and everywhere we looked, we found more. We tried to count them all, but we couldn't. You could never. You'll never find all the angels here."

* * *

One afternoon, television news reporters had come to St. Joseph's. That night we sat in Terry's small living room, chatting quietly, our eyes steadfast on the screen waiting for the St. Joseph's segment to come on the ten o'clock news. After scenes at St. Joseph's, to everyone's surprise, the bishop appeared. A reporter had stopped him on the street. The people say they have raised enough to make the necessary repairs, he asked, why isn't that good enough? The bishop answered that it would take a million dollars to fix that church. The only money the parish had come up with was pledged money, the bishop continued, and he raised his hand and stretched it out toward the camera. Rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, he said, "We want cash, the bread, you know, the moolah."

The next morning, as the parishioners gathered to share doughnuts and coffee on the steps of the church, they were wide-eyed. "Mon Dieu, now he's up to a million!" cried one. "Did you see our bishop last night on TV? The bread, the moolah," said another. They imitated the way the bishop had rubbed his fingers together. "We ought to make a copy of that and send it to the Pope so he can see what we have to deal with!" one said.

The following Sunday, a special service was held at St. Joseph's. Hundreds attended. Afterward, Arthur Couture, a life-long parishioner, stood up and said, "We finally know how to speak the bishop's language. He wants the moolah. So here is my moolah, a check for $1,000 in hard cash. I urge you all to do the same." Within two days the committee had collected $35,000 in cash and the next day another $20,000. A man who attends another church came to St. Joseph's and wrote them a check for $10,000. The bishop, on hearing this, was unmoved. Apparently nothing would change his mind about closing St. Joseph's.

* * *

In all that I heard, it really wasn't the money or the bishop or even the building that everyone wanted to talk about. There was a growing faith at St. Joseph's. I witnessed this myself. People coming and going at all hours of the day and night, kneeling in prayer. Ordinary members of the parish, who had never imagined leading a congregation in prayer, got up and led their neighbors with the assurance of the most practiced spiritual leaders. Obvious love passed among the people, the laughing and the hugging and the way they fed each other and shared what they had with each other. It was an alive and happy place, a safe place. "There are a few things that are going to come from all this," Terry whispered to me one day as we sat in a pew. "One is that churches should be open all the time."

It was the faith of the few at first, the faith of Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and all the others whose lives had unfolded inside the heart of this building – and who refused to let go of it. But then there were others, many others, who came to join them as the year progressed.

Randy Pryor, a 24-year-old youth counselor, slept regularly at the church and attended the rosary services as often as he could. "I had been to Catholic churches before," he told me. "I found what I thought was a lot of hypocrisy. But then I came up here and I met these people. I could not not come back." He told me about his French-Canadian grandfather who died when he was little, how strongly he feels his Papa's presence here at St. Joseph's. "It's been a major conversion for me, and my little story is just a drop in the bucket of water that fills up what St. Joseph's is."

Sean Redrow, an 18-year-old organist, heard about St. Joseph's. When he visited the church with other organists, he slid behind the organ's keyboard and pulled open the stops. They were astounded by the purity of its sound. "We ought to have a concert," he said, and a month later they had one. There wasn't an empty seat in the house. Sean's friend, Richard Jones, also an organist and an eminent Worcester historian, enjoys telling this story because he believes, as do many others, that it was at this concert that the word got out about St. Joseph's. "You see, people came and they saw what a beautiful church it was. All these years and only the people of St. Joseph's knew what it was like inside. It was like their secret. Once you've seen it, you don't just walk away from it."

Richard also believes that St. Joseph's has become such a rallying cry because it more or less survived Vatican II, a universal effort to bring the faith closer to the people. Richard told me that during the sixties, major renovations had been made to all of the Catholic churches. "It's an unfortunate chapter in Worcester's history," he said. And he told me that they painted over murals, took sledge hammers to marble altar rails and at St. Paul's, the city's main cathedral, they drove a crane down the center aisle to knock out the enormous marble altar. "The theory was that ornamentation distracted the worshipper," he explained. The people of St. Joseph's fought hard against major alterations in their church. And in that battle, they won. Some changes were made, but the miracle of St. Joseph's was that it survived, emerging unscathed, like some priceless antique plucked from the debris of a tornado. Undoubtedly some of the fervor people experienced when they got involved in the fight to save St. Joseph's is linked to nostalgia, a longing for things to be as they once were, including the strong moral rod of the Church.

Randy and Richard and Sean are just a very few of those who were gradually drawn into St. Joseph's struggle. Paul LeBlanc visited St. Joseph's and was so moved that he wrote a letter to the local paper, urging the bishop to close all the churches. "Five years ago I walked away from the Catholic church," he wrote. "If the parishioners at St. Joseph's decide to remain together [after their eviction], I will seek to join them. I never felt so welcome and at ease in any church, anywhere. Jesus had to die to conquer death. Maybe all the Church has to do is close so that all the disenfranchised Catholics can return."

Geraldine Dudley, the spunky grandmother of 13, said to me, "You wait and see. There is going to be a revolution inside the Catholic church, and it's going to start right here, at St. Joseph's."

It was not a place where the spirit could be dismissed. In the end, virtually everyone was visibly moved. The judge who ordered the eviction called it "an unbelievably unfortunate, sad situation." Reporters found it hard to maintain objectivity. Some wept. Some knelt in prayer. The police who stood guard that final day fought back tears and silently mouthed the words to familiar hymns as the people sang their way through the last hours of detention. Moments after the detained parishioners were removed, Ed Gardella, the city's hard-edged police chief, stood on a box and silenced the chanting crowd by shouting that he empathized with them. "You have rendered unto God all that is humanly possible, and now we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's!" he cried out.

* * *

If he is Caesar, Bishop Timothy J. Harrington does not care to admit it. I went to his office to ask him my questions. "Nobody wants to hear my side of this," he said wearily. He was in his shirtsleeves and black suspenders. I sat with him from late in the morning until late in the afternoon while he talked about the situation at St. Joseph's, which he abhors. "Who wants to be made out to be a guy who's beating up on old ladies?!" he cried. And he expressed surprise, "We have closed other churches, and not a word! I never thought they'd go to this extent."

Bishop Harrington is an emotive man who sometimes uses salty language and who, at moments, made me think of Archie Bunker, a father who can't understand his children, a father whose children have rejected him. He couldn't seem to get beyond his horror at how unfairly he had been portrayed. It seemed to him as if nothing he had done had come out looking as he would like it to. "Did you see that on television, with the coins?" he asked me, referring to the day of the eviction when he had stooped down to pick up the money. "I thought somebody dropped some money, and then one of the [reporters] says, 'I wonder what that means?' and I thought about the 30 pieces of silver, and I thought, oh jeez. A lady called me Judas Escariot." The bishop gave a cry of disgust.

"That must have hurt, to hear that," I said.

"Oooo, what do you think I am, a turnip?" he said.

Bishop Harrington said he had closed the church because it needed too much work. "I didn't want to put a burden on these people," he said. He implied that the people of St. Joseph's were not people of wealth. He dismissed the support that they were now receiving as "passerby support" and somewhat bitterly acknowledged that one of the members of the parish, three or four years ago, had won more than a million dollars in the lottery. "He could take care of the whole parish right now, if he wanted to," he said, his eyebrows raised.

I pointed out that the figure kept escalating, in accordance with the money the parishioners had raised. "Where did the figure of a million dollars come from?" I asked.

"I know, from experience, that when we get into the walls of a building, it usually doubles [the amount of the estimate]," he said.

"If they handed you a million dollars, in cash, tomorrow, would you change your mind?" I asked him.

No, he said, no, that still would not be enough. "Who's going to maintain it afterward?" he asked, adding yet another dimension to his argument.
I asked him about other churches in the diocese, ones that needed similar repairs, ones that were receiving financial help from the diocese of the kind St. Joseph's had never received, ones that had far fewer parishioners. He had reasons for keeping those churches open, but they all seemed arbitrary and left no doubt that if he wished, he could reopen St. Joseph's tomorrow.

I asked him if he had already sold St. Joseph's, and he said, "There are lots of reports, every one of them false. Rumors!" he said. "I don't know where they come from. It's like grabbing smoke. If I answered every one of them in the newspaper, I'd be buying space."

Much of the time he seemed exasperated, groping for words. At one point he asked me if I realized what a dangerous job he had. "They talk about the shepherd's crook! You know what that crook was? It was a weapon to guard off the wolves! Shepherding is a dangerous job today. The sheep, they get you in trouble!"

Many people had told me that what this was really all about was power. Deacon Joe DuVarney had said to me, "You see it on the TV, evangelists gathering money, the ones who have gone to jail, the ones who have done these terrible things, you see them falling. And now we see bishops, falling, falling from the love of Christ because they don't want that love. They want power. They want control. That is the falling star."

At one point, when I pressed Bishop Harrington on his reasons for boarding up the church even before the parishioners had been removed, he leaned across his desk toward me and pointedly tapped his fingernail against the top of his desk. "You see," he said, his voice a rasping whisper, "the reason I don't think your story will ever hit print is because I am the cheese. I am the big shot. I am the one holding all the cards."

* * *

A couple of weeks after the eviction I returned to St. Joseph's. They had told me they would meet on the sidewalk if they could no longer meet inside their church, and there they were, in force. The church windows were boarded up. The purple ribbons had been cut down, and the welcoming signs were gone. The fence had been extended to the sidewalk and hung with No Trespassing signs. Grim-faced police stood guard at the doors. As evening approached, more of the St. Joseph's family arrived.

Some things had happened since the eviction. Cash had continued to roll in. They were up to $130,000. Meanwhile, the diocese had spent an estimated $200,000 to secure the church and many thousands in legal fees. The irony was noted in the press and on the street. The committee had its first meeting with the bishop, though neither side expressed hope of a compromise afterward. Ron Fortin's brother, Roger, had received an anonymous phone call from someone at one of the city's most powerful law firms, claiming that he knew that the land had long ago been sold or placed under agreement. Deacon Joe had been officially reprimanded for speaking out in defense of the parishioners. "I haven't been excommunicated – yet," he said. Many requests came from strangers who wanted to join their "church."

The Catholic faith is a demonstrative faith, reliant on signs and symbols. They look for signs where others may not. On our last morning inside the church, after the sun had risen, one of the parishioners beckoned me to come down the aisle with her. "I want you to see our miracle," she said. The day before, the windows had only been partially boarded up. The men had left at dusk and were now unloading their tools to complete the task. Air and ventilation had been sealed out, but light still shone through the upper portions of each of the dozen windows. "Look at each one and tell me what you see," she said, her face brilliant with hope. "The face of Jesus in each one," she went on, before I had time to see it myself. "You see, they cannot shut Him out!"

Now, on the sidewalk, the people of St. Joseph's huddled together. It was time to start the evening rosary. A woman took the microphone and began. "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." In the gathering, I saw Terry. I saw Ron. I saw Richard and Sean and Randy. Deacon Joe DuVarney stood near the fence, his eyes shut, his hands tight around a string of rosary beads. "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." The murmured words of the people of St. Joseph's could be heard up and down the street. I saw the man who had told me that if I printed his name it would be "explosive." His head was bowed, and he was praying with the others. "O my Jesus, pardon our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven and help especially those most in need of your mercy."

* * *

The parishioners' case is on appeal and will be heard by the state Supreme Court this fall. A canon lawyer in Rome has been chosen to present the parishioners' case to the Vatican. On December 19 Bishop Harrington turns 75 and is expected to retire. And parishioners by the hundreds continue to meet on the sidewalk in front of St. Joseph's.