By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – The painting of Christ’s crucifixion displayed in St. Joseph Church’s sacristy has quite a history – and a message for today – according to the priest who hung it there and remembers it from his childhood.
“It is the oldest known artifact connected with origins of the Franco-American Catholic community of Worcester,” according to the Holy Family Parish website, www.holyfamilyparishworcester.org. (St. Joseph’s Church is the worship site for Holy Family Parish, which was formed in 2008 from Notre Dame-St. Joseph and Holy Name of Jesus parishes.)
The painting is about the origins of the Church as a whole, said Father Steven M. LaBaire, Holy Family’s pastor. Depicted beneath the crucified Christ are his earliest followers – his Mother Mary, his disciple John and Mary Magdalene.
“In John’s Gospel, the moment of Jesus breathing his last breath is seen as an imparting of the Holy Spirit upon the nascent Church,” Father LaBaire said. “Moreover, the piercing of his side, with blood and water flowing forth, is understood as representing the gifts of baptism and Eucharist which flow from Christ’s life-giving death. Hence, this moment for John the Evangelist is constitutive of the founding of the Church – the community of disciples.”
The painting dates almost to the founding of the French-Canadian churches here, historical accounts say. Notre Dame des Canadiens Parish was established in 1869, followed by St. Joseph’s in 1891, Holy Name in 1893 and Saint Anthony in 1904.
Notre Dame Parish has had three churches and the Crucifixion painting has hung in each one.
“The painting of Jesus crucified, that had been given on Christmas Day 1871 by the St. Jean-Baptiste Society of Worcester, hung behind the main altar of the first two churches,” according to Richard L. Gagnon’s 1995 book, “A Parish Grows Around the Common.”
The first church, located on Park Street (now Franklin Street), was gutted by fire in 1908. Masses were moved to the church building at Salem Square that the parish used for a school. In 1928 that second church was razed and the present one built in its place. That third church, sold after the merger in 2008, is no longer used for worship.
“The only known remnant of that first church is the painting of the Crucifixion which hangs in the present Notre Dame Church and was fully restored during the renovation program,” says a 1976 rededication Mass program booklet.
“Growing up at Notre Dame Parish I recall this painting being over the main altar … and I remember being told this painting came from the first Notre Dame Church,” said Father LaBaire. He said some believe an Italian artist created the painting. He said that, as a child, he was always impressed that the depiction of the Crucifixion was a painting instead of a metal or wood crucifix like in other churches. That gave Notre Dame a certain distinction, he thought.
Distinctions between church and city also moved him.
“As a child I remember going into Notre Dame during the day with my parents and grandparents,” he said. “And what struck me, and the image that I still carry, was that in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the city … there was this quiet oasis. When you entered the church you were immediately surrounded by a sea of flickering vigil lights, and people were at prayer at any time during the day. And as a small child I had a sense that this must somehow be a special place, different from others.”
In the 1970s that special place was renovated, with help from a college seminarian, Father LaBaire recalled. That seminarian is now Msgr. James P. Moroney, a Worcester Diocesan priest who is rector of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton and an expert in liturgical matters.
“Father Jean-Paul Fontaine had this painting moved from the high altar, which was dismantled, to a shrine area in the rear of the church” during the renovation, Father LaBaire said. “And that is where the painting remained until the church closed in 2008.”
Then it was brought to St. Joseph’s.
In 2013, after becoming pastor of the merged parish, Father LaBaire had the painting cleaned, repaired, restored and hung in the sacristy. He said the colors look more vivid now.
Asked what it’s like to be pastor of the church that now houses this painting, Father LaBaire replied, “It gives one a sense of the interconnectedness of events and people in life.”
At St. Joseph’s “people come in all the time to look at it,” he said.
One person who appreciates it being there is Terry Turgeon, a long-time St. Joseph’s parishioner who would sometimes attend weekday or holy day Masses at Notre Dame. She said this was her favorite painting there and she would light a candle and pray there.
“I could sometimes identify with the pain, and leaving everything at the foot of the cross,” she said. “So it was wonderful when it came … here.”
Father LaBaire said Mother Marie Louise Rondeau, one of the foundresses of the Little Franciscans of Mary, probably prayed in front of this painting as a young girl, since Notre Dame was then the mother church of St. Joseph’s, which she lived near.
He thinks she also prayed before it at a very difficult time when their community was getting started in the late 1800s.
Father LaBaire also connected the painting with those who suffer today.
“Pope Francis has spoken frequently regarding the solidarity of the Church with those who are ‘crucified’ in some way,” Father LaBaire said. “Our world is littered with crosses of suffering and pain. … So many are pierced by injustice. In some parts of the world, Christians endure terrible persecutions and experience the horror of crucifixion itself.…
“Looking to Christ, the Crucified One, the Church is sent to … companion all those walking a … Way of the Cross in their own lives. This old and beautiful painting speaks silently, yet eloquently, to the mission of the Church in our time and in every age.”