This story ran on July 1 in The Gardner News.
If you ask the Rev. Brian O’Toole, he’ll swear to you the Holy Spirit was with parishioners at Sacred Heart church last Sunday. “It was the second time in my life I’ve had an experience like that,” he said.
It was the final Sunday service in the history of the 140-year-old parish, and he was giving his sermon on the story of how Jesus healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and then resurrected a young girl by saying “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
The message, he said, is that with faith we can conquer our fears and move into the future. And so he told the brimming church to “koum.”
“Just as I said that, a huge wind blew through the front door, and the bulletins — that had been stacked on the table by the door — went flying through the church, up into the choir and to my feet,” he said. “Everyone broke into applause.”
“You couldn’t have planned it,” he continued. “It was a roar, just like the stories of the Pentecost.”
• • •
In the mid-1800s, there was no Catholic church in Gardner. Every Sunday, the 125 recorded Catholics in the community walked to St. Martin’s in Otter River for Mass.
Then in 1856, they started to celebrate Mass outdoors in a little grove of trees off of Baker Lane. According to Sacred Heart’s records, there “the women knelt on their shawls, the men held their caps in sincere reverence and the children watched the flicker of candles, which each worshipper held.”
In 1874, these people formed together to open the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Cross Street. While the building burned down in 1887, the parish — made up mostly of Irish immigrants — rebuilt it.
The year before Sacred Heart burned down, the French Canadian immigrants decided they wanted a church of their own where they could incorporate French into the Liturgy and honor their customs. From this desire, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church was built on Nichols Street.
A fierce rivalry, still talked about when the Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary elementary schools merged two years ago, developed between the two parishes.
Not to be outdone, Gardner’s Polish immigrant population decided to build a church of their own, where their heritage could be a part of their worship. In 1908, they build St. Joseph Parish on Pleasant Street.
In 1955, Holy Spirit Parish on Lovell Street was built to give everyone else, as well as portions of Hubbardston and Westminster, a place to worship.
A few years ago, the Worcester diocese began to study whether it made sense for Gardner to still have four parishes in a world where people no longer walk to church. In Nov. 2014, Bishop Robert McManus announced it didn’t.
Starting today, the four parishes no longer exist. Instead, their parishioners are now a part of AnnunciationParish, worshipping at Holy Rosary and Holy Spirit.
Sacred Heart and St. Joseph are now closed.
• • •
Uncertainty, fear, disappointment, discouragement, sadness and even anger are feelings parishioners at all four churches have struggled with since the announcement of the reconfiguration.
“People were crying last Sunday,” said the Rev. Thomas M. Tokarz, who presided over both St. Joseph and Holy Spirit. “It’s a tough time.”
To many, these are more than just buildings and names. They are the places they brought their babies to be baptized, the origins of their marriages, where they said goodbye to their parents, and the support network they relied on in difficult times.
“We were married here (at Sacred Heart) in 1960 on Oct. 1. I still have the wedding pictures,” said Gardner resident Marjorie Kraskouskas. “It kind of hurts that it is going to close.”
“I did everything you could do here,” her husband, John, said. “I was baptized here, I had First Communion here, I went to school here, I altar-served here, I was Confirmed here and I was married here. … This was the bedrock of the community and life.”
How to honor that was a question each of the closing churches dealt with differently. At St. Joseph’s people dealt with it quietly, culminating in a simple, well-attended service last weekend, where people gave thanks, remembered and cried.
At Sacred Heart, they decided to go out with a bit of a bang.
• • •
On the wall next to the baptismal font at Sacred Heart Parish there is a list posted of 8,000 names, representing everyone who had been baptized there. The pews are covered with white stickers with green typed names representing everyone who received First Communion at the church’s altar. The wood columns that stretch to the ceiling are covered with 6,000 white stickers with red names, all of the people who were Confirmed there.
For the last six days, the members of Sacred Heart have kept a vigil to honor their history.
“These are real human lives, with real stories, real families, real histories and real futures,” said the Rev. O’Toole. “We need to have some sort of ritual to honor that.”
Each day of the vigil, the community remembers a different piece of their history — the baptisms, First Communions, celebration of the Eucharist, weddings, and education.
On Tuesday, more than 50 people attended one last farewell Mass.
“The parish brought me back to church,” said Patricia Castagna, who will attend Holy Rosary this Sunday. “I had been away for a long time, but this felt like being with family.”
For his last sermon, the Rev. O’Toole spoke about how change is an inevitable form of chaos — scary and confusing. However, Jesus was capable of calming the ocean in a storm, and so with faith in him, it is possible to move forward, no matter how frightening.
“With God, there is no such thing as an accident,” the Rev. O’Toole said. “Every time I look in the Scriptures, I have yet to find a time where God says, ‘Retreat, go back.’ He is always saying, ‘Go forward, don’t be frightened, have faith.’”
• • •
Today, the Rev. O’Toole is on his way to Assisi, Italy, to do a pilgrimage in honor of St. Francis before spending some time in Rome while on sabbatical.
The Rev. Tokarz is unpacking boxes at St. Joseph Church in Berlin — his third stint preaching at a St. Josephs — to start new after 20 years in Gardner.
And, the Rev. Joseph Jurgelonis, formerly the pastor at Holy Cross Parish in East Templeton and St. Martin Mission in Otter River, is moving into his new home in Gardner, ready to start building Annunciation Parish.