By Tanya Connor
ASHBURNHAM – One couple went back to the church where they were married. A man returned to a place that’s been in his family since its beginning. Two sisters made a last visit.
The church that drew these and a few dozen other people Saturday was St. Anne’s. All came to 162 Center St. for an outdoor farewell service on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Anne’s daughter.
The town condemned the church building after a July 8 inspection and ordered it made safe or removed. Plans are being made for removing it. Parishioners – an estimated 40 families – have been welcomed to St. Denis Parish, with which they have been sharing ministries for years.
Father Joseph J. Jurgelonis, a former pastor of the two parishes and now pastor of the new Annunciation Parish in Gardner, said the statue before which they gathered is thought to depict St. Anne teaching the Scriptures to Mary – but maybe she was really sharing a favorite recipe.
“Today we consider all the good things we have shared,” he said. “Mixed feelings, yes … But also to realize God always provides. … We need to work on keeping that identity that was St. Anne’s.” He expressed hope that one day they will all see St. Anne, all the saints, and especially Jesus.
“As we honor this place of worship, we give thanks to God for all the blessings we have found here,” said Father John F. Hamm, administrator for St. Anne and St. Denis. “Let us remember the baptismal font.” He paused for silence, then praised God for the faith given to those baptized there. And so it went for the stations of the cross, tabernacle, altar, etc.
“You are greater than any … church … that can be built by human hands, yet in this place we have met your divine majesty,” said a concluding prayer. “Lead us to new friends in another faith community.”
Prayers were asked for retired former pastor Father John E. Horgan and for the brother of retired pastor Father Richard A. Fortin, Assumptionist Father Robert Fortin, who died Aug. 13.
Joan Webber and David Leary, St. Denis parishioners “on loan” to St. Anne’s music ministry for 20-some years, led the music. Patsy Vandesteen Mollica sang “Build a Family” from a Mass of St. Ann by composer Ed Bolduc. Now a choir leader at St. John, Guardian of Our Lady Parish in Clinton, she said she started as a summer organist at St. Anne’s at age 10, led a children’s choir there at 13, then played Sundays until college.
“St. Anne’s was very important in my musical development, the people were especially kind …” she commented. “I learned from … Claire Adams and Pat Conroy, hearing them sing the Latin hymns. Father Ed Dyer sent me to take organ lessons … I will never forget the gifts given to me at the church my mother grew up in and we all did.”
“It was very helpful and very healing,” life-long parishioner Paula Pitkiewicz said of Saturday’s service. “We planted flowers around the statue … to make it kind of brightened and happy … honor St. Anne, and Mary …”
“We were actually married 56 years ago today at St. Anne’s,” said Henry Goguen. “Today was very special for us – tough but very memorable.”
He and his wife, Carol, spoke to The Catholic Free Press at a reception at St. Denis’ hall after the service. He said he was 18 and she was 16 when they married.
“The priest said, ‘This ain’t gonna work,’” he recalled. “I wish he would’ve been here today.”
They remained at St. Anne’s, but now live in Florida. They were back visiting their children when they learned about the service and said they didn’t want to miss it.
Derek Gould, of St. Bernard Parish in Fitchburg, said he was an altar boy and maintenance worker at St. Anne’s. He said Father Fortin was like a second father to him.
“I brought my children back here to be baptized – I was living in California – because it’s been an important parish in family history,” he said. “Everyone’s been baptized here, married here, going back to when the church opened.”
He said his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side – Moses Morriseau – donated the land on which the church was built in 1893, where the parking lot is now. (In the 1930s the church building was moved across the street and a sanctuary was added.)
Cheryl Fortin Charland and her sister Donna Fortin Belt said they’d been talking about visiting St. Anne’s, where they grew up. Mrs. Charland, 70, who moved to Westminster after she married, said they wanted to bring back memories. She said she’d been in the choir and helped clean the church with the nuns, who came from Fitchburg to teach religious education classes.
“We practiced here” for cheerleading, and a parishioner made the outfits, remembered Mrs. Belt, 66, who moved to Gardner last year after 45 years in Missouri.
“This is all we had,” her sister said of church activities. There was a big Catholic community in the small town and the church was full, she said.
“It was a very tight-knit group that went to St. Anne’s,” she said. “We all helped each other. … One more era has come to an end.”