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Spotlight Report

First impressions

At Spanish Mass in Lawrence, O'Malley given a warm welcome

By Katheleen Conti and Peter Demarco, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent, 8/4/2003

LAWRENCE -- Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley never explained yesterday why he chose St. Patrick's Church here on South Broadway for his first Mass as the new leader of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Was it because St. Patrick's has been a role model for diversity, with Masses in Spanish and Vietnamese, and a congregation of immigrant parishioners the likes of which have been close to O'Malley's heart since he became a priest? Did he just want a venue where he could demonstrate his by-now famous language skills? Or was the reason, as he joked in Spanish yesterday, because the famous Latino psychic Walter Mercado told him this was the place?

In the end, it turned out, O'Malley's reasons for coming didn't seem to matter to any of the 1,000 parishioners who packed the stiflingly hot, red-brick church. Arriving hours ahead of the 2 p.m. service just to get a seat, they sang along with him in Spanish, roared at his jokes, and mobbed him after the service, asking for autographs, posing for photos, and kissing his ring.

''I've been a Catholic for 43 years, and I've never experienced this feeling except for once, when I saw the pope,'' said Nancy Cormier, 57, of Lawrence. ''But he didn't come to my hometown.''

Another parishioner, Migdalia Bencosme, said that with all that Lawrence has recently gone through, including crime, budget cutbacks, and last year's drowning of four youngsters in the Merrimack River, O'Malley's visit provided much-needed inspiration.

''I know our church is healing, and he's the man to help us,'' she said.

O'Malley, who assumed leadership of the Boston Archdiocese last week, did not speak with reporters. He also stayed clear of any mention of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, as well as other challenges facing the Catholic Church, including the closing of parochial schools.

While many protesters appeared outside O'Malley's July 30 installation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, only three were in evidence yesterday.

News of his visit caught many in Lawrence by surprise, including the Rev. Paul B. O'Brien, St. Patrick's pastor, who learned on Thursday of O'Malley's choice of his church for his inaugural Mass. Asked what special preparations he had made, O'Brien responded, ''Absolutely none. He said he just wanted to come celebrate the regular 2 p.m. Mass.''

As O'Malley, wearing the brown habit of his Capuchin order under his bishop's vestments, approached the altar, the quiet crowd, which included Lawrence Mayor Michael J. Sullivan, seemed in awe of his presence. But he quickly put them at ease with a joke from the famous Mexican comic Cantinflas.

''Puedo penetrar?' [`May I cut in?'],'' asked O'Malley, delivering the comic's famous phrase in nearly flawless Spanish.

In his homily, O'Malley told parishioners to feed their spiritual hunger and learn to interpret signs from God.

''In the United States, we're pretty chubby people, we eat so much,'' O'Malley said. ''But there is a spiritual hunger that no drug or sex can ever fulfill.''

Those attending the Mass traveled from as far as Peabody, Framingham, and Brookline to hear O'Malley's first homily. Some, such as Cormier, who didn't learn of O'Malley's visit until yesterday morning, had already attended Mass at other churches.

Many non-Spanish-speaking parishioners attended the all-Spanish Mass for the first time, as did others, such as Beverly Smith, who came from outside Lawrence just to see what Mass given in Spanish was like.

''The whole service was wonderful. The rhythm, the sense of community,'' Smith said of the lively guitar- and choir-led singing. ''The archbishop seems to already be very comfortable and part of the community.''

O'Malley also remarked on the diverse crowd.

''I'm happy to see the English-speaking parishioners here. . . . See? In the Spanish Mass they don't sing loud, do they?'' O'Malley joked in English after the Mass.

Others were well-prepared for his arrival on the front steps of the church. A half-dozen teenage girls stood before the Mass with signs written in Spanish welcoming O'Malley.

''I've never seen somebody this big in person,'' said Stephanie Munoz, 14, a member of the church's youth group, who wore a dress as opposed to her usual T-shirt and jeans for the occasion.

Minutes later, O'Malley entered the church through a side door, completely bypassing Munoz's welcoming committee. Grabbing their signs, they raced into the rear of the church, but the archbishop took a sharp right and missed them again.

''I'll get him after church. Don't worry,'' she said, undaunted.

Following the service, O'Malley made his way to the rear of the church once more, smiled at Munoz and her sign and asked, ''How are you doing?'' before being pulled away by other parishioners.

''Mission accomplished,'' she later said.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 8/4/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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