By Patricia O’Connell
GARDNER – The backs of each pew at Sacred Heart church were covered with small strips of paper. Each bore the name of someone who had received various sacraments at the parish, founded in 1874.
Pieces of paper also covered the floor-to-ceiling support poles. A large banner hung next to a statue of Our Lady, in front of the church, held more names.
More names covered nearly every other exposed piece of woodwork.
“We have to honor the memories,” explained Father Brian O’Toole, who has led both Sacred Heart and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary for the past six years. “The sadness, it’s not just the building, (it’s the) memories that went with it. You have to honor them.”
Father O’Toole said this was also the motivating factor behind the week-plus observance of the final days of both parishes.
As of July 1, a reconfiguration process went into effect. All four city parishes were suppressed, and a new parish, named Annunciation, was formed. Future Masses will be held at the former Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and Holy Spirit parishes.
Last weekend’s closing Masses were all held at Sacred Heart, which is no longer be used for regularly scheduled Sunday and daily Masses.
At the start of last weekend’s 4:30 Vigil Mass, Father O’Toole told the parishioners and vis itors the significance of name tags, representing everyone who had been baptized, confirmed or made their First Holy Communion at Sacred Heart, during its 135-year history.
“You may have your name here,” he said.
During his homily, Father O’Toole noted that he’d “rather be a pastor founding the church, than be the pastor shutting off the lights and closing the doors.”
He again referred to the names, visible from every direction, even lining one of the tables in the front hallway.
Father O’Toole then described some of the trials experienced by the Gardner Catholic community in recent years.
“In the six years that I’ve been here, this parish, in particular, both parishes had to wrestle with some pretty significant issues. A beloved past or got sick. Another pastor who was sick died. The communities were distraught in various ways,” he said.
All of this, he noted, happened within the context of the ever-present possibility of consolidations and mergers.
“This ghost, this ghost has been haunting us for six years,” he said. “We all knew that something was going to change. We could not sustain these churches any longer.”
During the rest of the homily, which centered on that day’s Gospel reading of Jesus healing two people, a woman with a hemorrhage and a young girl who appeared to have died, Father O’Toole pointed out that this must have been an incredibly difficult time for the woman, who was likely shunned and ostracized. She’d seen doctors who didn’t help her.
Meanwhile, as Jesus healed this woman, it appeared as if it was too late for the little girl.
“What Jesus teaches us in the Gospel is that it’s never too late with God‚” he said.
He also referred to the second account of healing, when Jesus took the hand of the 12-year-old girl and told her to get up.
“My prayer for you is to get up, begin again anew,” he said.
After Mass parishioners and visitors gathered in the church hall for a meal. Changes are taking place for all Catholics in the city.
At one table, 85-year-old Pauline Doiron sat with other parishioners from Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Looking at the new Mass schedule for Annunciation parish, she noted that only one daily Mass, on Monday, will be held at Holy Rosary. Tuesday through Friday, the Mass will be held at Holy Spirit.
“At least at Holy Rosary, the doors are open,” she said. “At my age, I’ll accept the changes.”
The changes are more drastic for the people of Sacred Heart. “I’m upset,” said Mary Sylvester, adding, “It’s the only church I’ve known.”
Seated next to her was Sacred Heart parishioner Helen Butler. Both said they’ll be attending future Masses at Holy Spirit, as they like the smaller building.
Even as the parish was preparing to close, however, new memories were still being made.
After his homily, Father O’Toole had Gloria and George Billings come up to the altar, where he blessed them on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.