Guest columnist Mary McMahon: Bringing St. Mary’s back to life

  • St. Mary’s Church in Northampton. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 11/29/2018 8:17:43 AM

On a Sunday afternoon in October, a special Mass was held in Helen Hills Hills Chapel at Smith College in honor of Mother Mary Joseph, founder of the Maryknoll Sisters, the first U.S.-based religious order of Catholic women dedicated to a global mission.

The Mass, offered by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, was a celebration of the gift of a tabernacle to the Sisters from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. The “Real to Reel” TV program of the Springfield Diocese covered the event. Mother Mary Joseph graduated from Smith College in 1905, and she was known then as Mollie Rogers. St Mary’s Church was her church while she was at Smith. According to her biography, “Maryknoll’s First Lady,” written by Sister Jeanne Marie in 1964, Mollie attended Mass there almost every day.

We learn from her biography that it was one evening on campus that she witnessed a jubilant group of Protestant girls celebrating with those who had pledged to serve in foreign missions. Even as a child, Mollie had prayed that some day she would be a credit to the church, but she knew of no particular opportunities for Catholic girls to serve as missionaries. Moved by the excitement of the Smith students, Mollie went across the street to St. Mary’s and prayed that she might be able to give of herself someday, somehow, for the good of the church. Little did she know how expansive and far-reaching her prayer was likely to become. 

The tabernacle before which Mollie prayed at St. Mary’s was the centerpiece of a pre-Vatican II marble altar built in the latter part of the 19th century. During the renovation of St. Mary’s Church in the 1980s, the door of that tabernacle was incorporated into a new Eucharistic Shrine located at a side altar. The door depicts a mother pelican feeding her chicks, and represents us, the faithful, being fed by Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I learned of its beautiful symbolism as a member of the renovation committee when we chose to keep it as a part of the new wooden tabernacle. The marble tabernacle of Mollie’s time was dismantled along with the entire treasured marble altar (now referred to as a reredos), and sent down the road to someplace in Pennsylvania in May of this year, along with other precious patrimony of St. Mary of the Assumption Church.

The tabernacle donated and delivered this summer to the Maryknoll Sisters in Ossining, New York is the one before which the Sisters prayed when they visited Smith College in recent years. On those occasions, the Smith chaplain, Liz Carr, would call and ask me to give them a tour of St. Mary’s Church because of its significance to their foundress. Following Mollie’s graduation, she was invited to return to Smith as a demonstrator in the Department of Zoology. Also, in the 1906-1907 academic year, she was asked by a faculty advisor to form a Bible study class for Catholic students. In later years, Mother Mary Joseph was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and was the recipient of several honorary degrees, including at Smith College.

Hopefully, the golden door that remains a part of the tabernacle now at the Motherhouse in New York symbolizes for the Sisters their mission in the church to bring hope and healing to countries around the world. For over 100 years, the Sisters — now joined by lay missionaries in Africa, Asia and the Americas — have responded to the basic needs of people to create a more just and compassionate world.  

The inspiration Mollie received while praying at St. Mary’s remains a part of her legacy and the legacy of St. Mary’s. Sadly, the church building, which has stood idle for almost 10 years, remains closed by the Bishop and is for sale. It seems diocesan leaders do not value its beauty as a place of worship with outstanding acoustics, nor its location in the historical district of Northampton or its proximity to Smith College for its Catholic students.      

Originally, in the consolidation of Northampton parishes, Bishop Timothy McDonnell announced in August of 2009 that the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Committee recommended St. Mary’s to be the city’s principal church. Shockingly, that changed three months later following objections from some local Catholics, and amid disputes of diocesan claims of necessary church repairs. It was in November 2009 that the Bishop issued a decree to close St. Mary’s and make Sacred Heart the city’s main Catholic Church. 

The new chapter brought to light in recent months about the connection of Maryknoll’s Mother Mary Joseph to St. Mary’s adds to the sadness and loss of this iconic church and its historical significance to the city of Northampton. Many faithful people of St. Mary’s have spoken up to church authorities, trying to be heard, even submitting architectural drawings for additional parking and financial analysis. They have experienced the same lack of transparency and bad decisions made by those in power just as others have witnessed in the wider church for years. 

Is it too much to dream that the city of Northampton and Smith College, with the Interfaith Community of which St. Mary’s was so much a part, could find a way to bring this building back to life? 

Can you imagine not seeing the spires of St. Mary’s that anchor our city’s skyline in the heart of downtown? The tallest steeple includes the Star of David, which points to our heritage in Jesus, a Jew. For over 135 years, the church truly has served as a Catholic presence among other faith communities in our city.

Let’s take inspiration from the spirit and charisma of Mother Mary Joseph, whose missions were directed beyond our country’s shores. As citizens of Northampton, we can bring her mission home to serve those in need who live closest to us and achieve greater unity as we bring hope and healing to our community. It’s time to encourage the primary stakeholders to move forward in a collaborative effort to create a vision and plan for the re-use of St. Mary’s.                       

Mary McMahon, retired Pastoral Minister, St. Mary’s Church (1985-2010) & St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish (2010-2017).

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