A Parish In Transition

Director James Rutenbeck spent four years in Lawrence, Mass., filming parish life at St. Patrick's Catholic Church. A new generation of immigrant parishioners from Latin America is changing the face and the traditions of the historically Irish Catholic parish and many of the older congregants are trying to adjust. Rutenbeck reflects on his time at the parish and Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick's, explains how he is leading his congregation through a transformation. Rutenbeck's film Scenes from a Parish airs Tuesday on the PBS series Independent Lens.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Merry Christmas.

If you've already opened your gifts, eaten a little too much and perhaps had enough quality time with the family, what else might you do? Head to the movies. We'll tell you what's playing in a few minutes.

But first, we go to the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. It's just 30 minutes northeast of Boston but it feels like miles away from a city known for its many colleges and universities. Lawrence, by contrast, was in the 19th century, home to a community of Irish mill workers, many of whom came together in the late 1800s to raise funds for their own church, St. Patrick's Parish.

St. Patrick's still stands today and it is still a place of sanctuary for immigrants, except that these newcomers are more likely to come from the Dominican Republic, Cambodia and Vietnam. When Father Paul O'Brien was called to St. Patrick's in 2001, he was charged with trying to knit that diverse community more closely together. A new documentary called, �Scenes From A Parish,� tells that story. Here is Father O'Brien.

(Soundbite of documentary, �Scenes From A Parish�)

Father PAUL O'BRIEN (Pastor, St. Patrick's Church): South Lawrence, where St. Patrick's is located, was traditionally an Anglo neighborhood. In the last 20 years, South Lawrence has become increasingly Hispanic and therefore mixed. Our people who do not like one another based on differences of language or nationality, how are they ever going to find unity? Anyone with a heart and mind would ask that question about Lawrence.

MARTIN: Filmmaker James Rutenbeck spent four years in Lawrence, Massachusetts, making the film. It will air as part of the PBS series, �Independent Lens,� beginning on December 29th. I'm joined by both James Rutenbeck and Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick's. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Father O'BRIEN: Thank you.

Mr. JAMES RUTENBECK (Filmmaker): Thank you.

MARTIN: Father O'Brien, I would like to ask, when you were first called to St. Patrick's, what did you think you would find?

Father O'BRIEN: Well, when I came, it was with the charge of trying to open the doors to everybody. It was still a predominantly Anglo parish and a predominantly Hispanic community. And so my first charge was actually not to try to knit people together or even to bring about unity, but to open the doors, to invite in everybody. And I presumed, therefore, I'd find a lot of folks who were interested in that and plenty of folks who were not interested in that.

MARTIN: In fact, I just want to play a short clip from the film of one of your parishioners, Frank Martin, who seemed to be working very hard in one of the church ministries, but he was very candid about the fact that he was struggling. He was particularly struggling given some of the experience that he was having trying to help some of the single moms, many of whom were Latino. Here is what he had to say, here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, �Scenes From A Parish�)

Parishioner FRANK MARTIN (St. Patrick's Church): How can the fathers of these children abandon them so easily? I came home and I tried to imagine something like that happening to me. And I - there was no way that I could. Is that part of their culture, to just up and say, see you later? I had a rough one with that.

MARTIN: James, you make the point in the film that this isn't just happening in Lawrence. In fact, that's happening - these kinds of exchanges are playing out not just across Massachusetts area, but across the country. Maybe that is - it is interesting how candid people were with you. They really shared with you some very deep feelings and conflicts that they were having. And I know you've been doing this a long time, but were you surprised by that? Did you have a sense that they wanted to talk to you about this?

Mr. RUTENBECK: I think so. The people in Lawrence are facing real challenges every day and they have to deal with very basic survival issues. And the other piece of it is that we spent four years there and I wasn't there everyday, but I was there with the crew very often. We spent a lot of time with our characters, we got to know them. And part of the process is immersing myself into their life stories. And so I just think over time that, you know, the awkwardness recedes.

MARTIN: Well, one of the central themes of the film, of course, is how are these people going to live together in this one place? And of course, they are not required to, which is a point that the film makes clear. I just want to play a short clip from one of your parishioners, Edna McGregor, and she talks about a phone call she made to you. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, �Scenes From A Parish�)

Parishioner EDNA MCGREGOR (St. Patrick's Church): When I found out that the mass is being done in Spanish and English, I called and I asked to speak to Father Paul. He was on the other line, so I left him a message and in the message, I put: Father Paul, if the mass is done in Spanish and English, I wish you would get somebody else to take my place because I do not get anything out of the mass.

MARTIN: What about that Father Paul? What did you say to parishioners like Edna who said, I don't like it, I don't like these changes, I don't want this?

Father O'BRIEN: I think I've told people that you don't have to be afraid that because new people come in or there are new realities in your parish that you are going to lose what's been dear to you. In a community like Lawrence, where there has been so much loss economically and socially, people are legitimately afraid of change. And so the best I can do is assure people that opening doors and having newcomers come in does not mean at all the loss of anything that's good. But that only goes so far and I have to respect people's freedom to accept one another or not accept one another.

Edna has, you know, stated publicly that she has left the parish and she will come back to this parish when I leave. Well, she thinks, I presume, that when I leave - and also Edna is a lovely person and we could sit down and have a bottle of beer together, but she thinks - I think she probably thinks that if I leave, it's going to go back to what it was before. And of course that's not the case.

MARTIN: And of course, there is two sides to the story. There is the old timers who have been there and then there are the newcomers. And Father, would you talk to me a little bit about what some of these people want from you and from the community. What are they looking for?

Father O'BRIEN: Sure. We are a 70 percent Hispanic city. And so, folks are looking, who are active in their faith already, are looking for access to God and to one another in their own language and their own cultural traditions, as well as in the existing cultural traditions of the United States. They are looking for the answer to questions like Frank Martin said at the beginning - in the clip you played, they want to know is this really a part of our lives forever, that we are not going to have fathers in 75 percent of our families? They want to know, is there going to ever be a hope for us to be educated and not live in economic poverty? They want to know, are we going to get food to eat tonight?

So, in a community like ours, where we are really on top of one another and where the Catholic Church is the predominant faith reference point for people, whether or not they are baptized, people want to know everything about their lives. So, whatever the challenges are for older folks, including the cultural challenges, we can understand those. For younger folks, they are also bringing all of their life questions to the church and kind of working out those questions within the faith community.

MARTIN: There is a story line in the film that I think many people might not expect. And it's about Rosaura Vasquez and at some point, she talks about how has she came to join the choir at Saint Patrick's. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, �Scenes From A Parish�)

Ms. ROSAURA VASQUEZ (Choir Member, Saint Patrick's Church): The first time I heard them, I was like, oh, my God, they are so awesome. I just loved it. They sounded so good. I just kept listening to that beautiful choir and I'm like, what do I have to do if I wanted to join your choir? I never sang in an English choir before. It was the first time. I get so nervous when I'm going to sing.

MARTIN: James, what did you want to tell us Rosaura's story?

Mr. RUTENBECK: My co-producer Angelica had met Rosaura and suggested that I talk to her and that we maybe pursue her as a character. And Rosaura was one of those people who was very interesting. She had just recently arrived in the U.S. She came because her father asked her to come to help support them because he was being treated for cancer. She had to leave her Dominican Republic and all her friends and her life there, and come to this new place. And she was a person that was definitely looking for a place in this community.

MARTIN: But - and I don't want to spoil it for people but Rosaura also does drift away from the parish. And talk about that.

Mr. RUTENBECK: Well, can I jump in on that one?

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. RUTENBECK: On top of what James is saying, through this whole thing, there's always the question through the film about faith and culture. To what extent is my Catholicism about a real lived-out and up and down, whatever it is, relationship with God, and to what extent is my Catholicism about culture, my way of life? So, Rosa feels comfortable at the beginning of the film with her Catholicism because she is comfortable with the culture of the parish, even - including everything James has just discussed.

She is looking for community, it's offering community. I think she would tell you at the beginning of the film her Catholicism has everything to do with real faith. In fact, I don't think that Rosa - she has family struggles with - and they're all members of our faith community. I don't think her struggles are so much about life changes in the parish. I think they are about life changes in God, and life changes in herself, and life changes in her family.

I - you know, I can tell you the beautiful part is that whatever the - whatever her active involvement is in the parish at any given time, Rosa really does know this is her family and this is her home. And I don't think she's ever - I don't think that's ever drifted away.

MARTIN: Well, how do you think it's going, Father Paul? The central project, if you will, is getting people to love one another in community, as the Gospel calls them to do. How do you feel that's going?

Father O'BRIEN: It's going great. We have - in our tradition people who are older than young children who are baptized, are usually baptized at the Easter Vigil each year. We currently have 25 or 30 teenagers stepping up at every Easter Vigil to be baptized. In a neighborhood like ours with a gang culture and, you know, the toughest kids in the country, when you see really young people saying, I want to be of God, and I want to be a Christian, for real, you know that there is, yo uknow, an awful lot of good going on. Whatever our challenges are, I'd much rather have our list of challenges with, again, thousands of people trying to work them out together, and fight them out together than probably most other possible situations.

MARTIN: James, we only have a minute left. I want to get a final thought from you. What would you hope people would draw from the film?

Mr. RUTENBECK: I'm hoping that people will come to a greater sense of the common humanity that we all share. And we are brothers and sisters, and that I want people to feel like they can enter into that place.

MARTIN: The film is �Scenes From A Parish.� And it will air on the PBS series Independent Lens on December 29th. You'll want to check your local listings. Filmmaker James Rutenbeck joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Father Paul O'Brien joined us from Saint Patrick's in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us and Merry Christmas to you both.

Father O'BRIEN: Merry Christmas.

Mr. RUTENBECK: Thank you.

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