“God is speaking all the time, often through the least likely people.”
—Father Paul O’Brien, St. Patrick’s Parish
Lawrence, Massachusetts is a New England textile town that was founded by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine. Subsequent waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and Canada flooded in through the decades, providing labor for the wool mills scattered around town, and earning Lawrence the nickname “Immigrant City.”
Today, the mills are closed and textile jobs have moved overseas, leaving Lawrence one of the poorest municipalities in the United States. The primarily Irish enclave of South Lawrence is aging as the younger generation leaves for better economic opportunities.
Still, Lawrence’s reputation as a welcoming place for newcomers has attracted another wave of immigrants: mostly younger people from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Their music fills the streets, their language is spoken in schools and churches and their businesses are filling the previously shuttered storefronts of the economically stressed downtown.
James Rutenbeck’s film SCENES FROM A PARISH looks at issues of community, tolerance and immigration from the perspective of a Catholic priest who is trying to hold his disparate congregation together.
Father Paul O’Brien’s own ancestors came to New England from Ireland in the 1800s, and he graduated from Harvard University alongside his friend (and now Tonight Show host) Conan O’Brien. As an upper-middle class, highly educated young man who came to St. Patrick’s in Lawrence from suburban Boston, O’Brien is himself something of an outsider to the locals.
Father O’Brien insists on conducting Mass in English and Spanish, and works diligently to build a community center and pantry to feed the area’s poor, many of whom are of color.
But some of his non-Hispanic parishioners are finding it hard to love their new neighbors, and are feeling squeezed out and under siege. Some begin to resent the money and time Father O’Brien is spending on the center, and even claim that there was no poverty or hunger in their community before the Spanish-speaking people arrived. Even the homeless encampment on the edge of town is segregated, with different areas designated for white squatters and minorities.
Meanwhile, Bobby McCord, his sister and his single mother are of Irish ancestry, and they suffer from a different kind of social marginalization. They are lower income, and Bobby is mentally disabled. Bobby is driven by a pure desire to help other people, and spends his days volunteering at local nursing homes and at the church, sweeping sidewalks and doing other odd jobs. But he is different, and is regarded with a cautious indifference by the community. His sister and mother are virtually ignored.
There are redemptive stories of other parishioners struggling to overcome their unease by extending themselves in service to their new neighbors. One couple helps a young mother and former gang member with a security deposit for an apartment. Another coaches Rosaura Vásquez who wants to join the all-white church choir.
Underpinning SCENES FROM A PARISH is the idea of home and belonging, something deeper than simple matter of ethnicity. The film suggests that change can be unsettling—and even frightening—no matter what our histories or values might be. It may bring out the best or the worst in us and prompts us to consider our better natures and how can overcome our fear of the unfamiliar.
In July 2009, filmmaker James Rutenbeck provided an update on what some of the people featured in SCENES FROM A PARISH have been doing since filming ended.
Father O’Brien and Diane Jarvis are still deeply involved with feeding hungry people in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Rosaura Vásquez is working for an working for an accountant and happily in love.
Elvys Guzman is still attending night school and hoping to become an FBI agent.
Peggy Oliveto had surgery on her hip and has recovered. She took a short hiatus from her work with Saint Vincent de Paul while she was healing, but she is now back in full force.
Edna McGregor has left the parish and says she will return when Father O’Brien leaves.
Frank Martin is doing well. He attended the film’s premiere at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and joined in the standing ovation.
Sarah McCord is a junior at Boston University. Two years ago her mother Virginia passed away from heart failure while riding a public bus. Bobby moved in with a foster family—a Latino couple—who provide him with his own adjoining apartment and loads of love and attention. When I visited him there last spring, he proudly showed me his empty kitchen cabinets: a true bachelor pad.
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