By Rosalie Tirella
The wrecking ball comes crashing down on the East Side’s once majestic Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church …
… a la our recently demolished, once beautiful and vital, Notre Dame church in downtown Worcester. Both built by immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was erected by Worcester’s Italian-American community; Notre Dame by French Canadian immigrants. People who Worcester’s ruling class looked down on as ignorant sod busters and kept out of good municipal jobs, as well as their pretty West Side neighborhoods. The churches were the immigrants’ answer to the City’s systemic ethnic prejudice: SEE WHAT WE CAN ACCOMPLISH! LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL! WE ARE THE ARTISTS! WE ARE PROUD CATHOLICS!
Yesterday I took a ride down Shrewsbury Street, up Mulberry, to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, to check out the property – and say Goodbye.
Goodbye to everything. Including the church’s once active kids little league baseball field …
… and busy community center. The land and buildings and ballpark, located near the gentrified Canal District and chi chi Union Station area, has an assessed value of $7.65 million.
I wasn’t a parishioner at Mt. Carmel (St. Mary’s was my family’s church) but, as a little girl, went to Mass there pretty often – always when Ma, my two kid sisters and I visited our Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark. I remember the beautiful women of the church, kneeling in the pews, row after row of beautiful women, in their prime, with long black hair, their lovely sculpted noses, their gold rings and bracelets…their veils, too. Hiding those beautiful faces! The church’s high ceilings were beautiful, too! Mt. Carmel was way more ornate than our simple little Polish church near Kelley Square.
The church’s exterior was unforgettable! – especially from the highway! Before I-290 was expanded and destroyed Mt. Carmel’s facade. I remember: me, a little girl, sitting in the back seat of my Uncle Mark’s big Electra, at night with my family. Uncle Mark was driving us to his house in the Burncoat neighborhood where Aunt Mary had Christmas dinner waiting for us all. Oh, how I loved to look out that right-side rear passenger window and see Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church all lit up! Her lights shining so bright on her steeple and her big, circle mosaic … hand painted. ART. Lit from within! A prayer for the whole city. My city. Worcester. It gave me peace. Made me happy. “Rounded out” a perfect day!
Now … all gone. To be replaced by condos and retail. Or apartments and retail. Like we need more shitty retail … more leather (a cruel industry!) handbags. More apartments and condos with those “on-trend” granite countertops. When what we need is love! When what we need is more Our Lady of Mount Carmel churches!!
As I drove around the cracked parking lot to take one last look at a small urban nook, I noted the beatup parking lot …
… exhausted baseball diamond, and dying church building. But I also noted all the three deckers practically linked together they were so close, surrounding the ballfield! Scores and scores of three deckers just looking out on/at/for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church! The Italian immigrants who once lived there – HUNDREDS OF THEM! – came to mind. My relatives. Mt. Carmel was THEIR/OUR church. Bell Hill, too. But from Shrewsbury Street … a quick five-minute walk from their three deckers with their big tenements filled with the aroma of homemade tomato sauce, fish soup and icons of Jesus and old calendar pictures of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel – the Virgin Mother – always dressed in heavenly blue.
Today all those three deckers are filled with new people, with new plans, loves, ideas, identities. The Italians are gone – many moved up Shrewsbury Street straight into the leafy suburb of Shrewsbury. Now they and their progeny are living on quiet streets, in their own single-family homes! They MADE IT. The American Dream became their reality. Whoopee!!!
So yesterday I drove around that tiny tired urban square and admired, loved, grieved over, its once lovely compactness – the HUGE human needs it so brilliantly filled! God, family, community, gatherings, food, big Italian dinners, fun, kids, baseball – the quintessential American sport, exercise, teams … LOVE. And I sat in my car, with my dogs Jett and Lilac in the back seat, and took it all in for the last time: an America I once knew and loved. And was a part of. The America I knew and still cherish had little to do with money but made you crazy happy! You were ensconced in community. You were drowning in connections and commitments. Overwhelmed by your clan. But you were in America, too; this other world. Your church world gave you your backbone – the one that enabled you to achieve, thrive, in your new world, America. Be an American.
The Mt. Carmel church, its community center, its little league baseball field … all straight out of that great America. Almost the set of that 1940s Bing Crosby movie! The one about the adventures of an inner-city parish priest: GOING MY WAY. One of my favorite movies! Bing Crosby won an academy award for his performance! In this black and white classic Father Bing, just like our Our Lady of Mt. Carmel head pastor, Monsignor Pedone, leads a church alot like Mt. Carmel: the building in disrepair, dwindling/no funds to fix things/pay the bills, money-grubbing bankers/developers, a newer surrounding community. MODERN DAY CHALLENGES. But it was Father Bing Crosby! So he sang his church out of the mess! But he also worked hard – and solved some of his church’s problems in a very real way. The same problems Pastor Pedone faced. Father Bing – Father “Chuck” O’Malley in the movie – saw, represented, the new day: He embraced the new poor of the neighborhood (tough street kids and youth, a runaway teenage girl); he wasn’t cowed by the money people; did the accounting and paperwork. He reached out to new communities, to everybody for help … to create A NEW CHURCH. A NEW COMMUNITY. A NEW CHURCH FOR TODAY.
Worcester has its Father O’Malley’s: Father Madden of St. John’s Church on Temple Street and Father Scollen, pastor of St. Peter’s church on Main Street, in the heart of Main South. These two priests, these two guys – please excuse the term – are killing it!! Robust parishes, much community acceptance and outreach, many new programs – for today – all the time! Accepting, embracing inner-city youth, hungry, homeless poor people … music programs, after-school tutoring and fun activities for kids, plus the usual weddings, baptisms and funerals. Father Madden and Scollen’s churches are STILL AROUND BECAUSE of them – great, forward-thinking, hard-working leaders. You could – I will! – call them fearless in the Age of Trump. Naturally, their churches, their organizations, reflect the top – THE TWO PASTORS. So it follows … They are ALIVE! With lots of people, lots of ideas, lots of projects and programs, lots of LOVE.
The polar opposite of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s head – Monsignor Pedone. Who could be found seated at the bar of the snazzy seafood restaurant on Shrewsbury Street, tucked in the corner, quietly nursing a stiff drink.
Everytime I was at that seafood restaurant pooped out, stressed out, hustling, trying to sell ads for my paper, InCity Times, I saw Father Pedone at its beautiful, stylish bar. Always seated in the corner, in the same discreet spot, sipping his elegant cocktail.
A good, Catholic girl, I’d greet him respectfully: “Hi, Father. How are you?”
We both knew the answer.
All that barseat-warming has come to fruition: A dead parish, a lost cause, a razed church, an abandoned community center, a kid-less ball field, the abandonment of Jesus’s mission and teachings, bitterness. A neighborhood filled with needy people who NEED LOVE, NEED A CHURCH. A spiritual home. Instead we get: a church without its sacred objects and stained glass windows. A church with older parishioners whose numbers can’t support/maintain a huge, lovely church building that their Italian ancestors – straight “off the boat”! – BUILT. Often by hand!
To grow a new flock. To run, like Father Madden, some aspects of his church like a feisty small business. Really! To make new connections, with new organizations and people. Instead, Pastor Pedone bailed on his flock, capitulated to the city’s $poo bas, the greedy developers and the Chamber of Commerce money guys. Monsignor Pedone sat on a barstool and let it all slip through his incompetent fingers. In a very trendy Shrewsbury Street seafood restaurant (no working class blokes and bars for Father Pedone!). He shut out Mauro DePasquale and his Mount Carmel Preservation Society with all its ideas, fundraising ability and PASSION. Pastor Pedone looked around his old neighborhood and didn’t see his beloved Italians …
… but didn’t see anything new, either.