Father Austin Fleming
Pastor, Holy Family Parish

Age 57

Interviewed at the Parish Hall, Church Street, February 14, 2005
With appreciation for transcription sponsorship to the Fossett, Lanagin, and Padden families

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

The Closing of Our Lady's Church:Father Austin Fleming was Pastor of Our Lady's Help of Christian Church which closed on October 25, 2004.

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Fleming, Father Austin.It was in January three years ago that the Boston Globe broke the stories of priests of the Archdiocese who had been in parish work and accused of sexual misconduct of minors. Not only was that sad enough news, but almost worse than that was the news that the Archdiocese had continued to reassign these priests to other parishes realizing that they were putting children in harm's way by doing so. It all kind of exploded on the scene at once, and although people thought it was difficult to believe, it was the truth. Those stories were really a surprise to just about everybody and certainly to myself. I think people thought that this was going on and certainly priests must have known about it. But indeed, I think most priests didn't know about it. I've been a priest for almost 32 years now, and I know that over the years, here and there a priest had been dismissed from ministry for sexual misconduct. But the stories I knew of were few and far between. So it really was a surprise to people. It took all of us by surprise.

My approach in the parish was to be as open as I possibly could be about what was going on. Keep in mind that my information was coming from the Boston Globe too. That's another thing that people think, that I get daily messenger service from the Archdiocese, all kinds of secret information, but it simply doesn't work that way. My information was coming from the Globe as well as everybody else's. Over the years I have had occasion in a counseling capacity to work with five different individuals, four women and one man, who were abused sexually as children, three of them by priests and two of them by family members. So that gave me a unique kind of perspective. I had dealt with people who were victims of sexual abuse by priests, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to help those people because it gave me an insight into the reality. More important, it gave me a vocabulary in which to speak about it. That was one of the problems about this is that we didn't know how to talk about this. Innocent priests wanted to talk about this, but they weren't exactly sure what the vocabulary of this kind of experience is.

So for three weeks in asrow at Mass on Sunday rather than preach a homily or sermon as I usually would, I just opened up the floor for questions from people. I sWid you can ask whatever you want and I will give you the most honest answer I have. And I'm really glad I did that because I think that signaled to the people in the Our Lady's community that we're not hiding this here, and we're going to make every effort to understand as thoroughly as possible. We had several listening sessions, evening opportunities for folks to simply gather and talk. It was a huge circle of chairs in the Parish Hall and a microphone, and anybody was free to get up and say or ask anything they wanted to. We had psychiatrists there both to offer some professional input and also when you to do this kind of work, you never know who in the group is also a victim of some form of abuse and may never have shared that with anybody before, and now because they are hearing this, they want to talk to somebody.

I write a weekly letter in the bulletin and I wrote about this extensively. I wrote with a kind of advocacy point of view. Many people including myself were highly critical of not only what the Archdiocese had done over the years, that is to say pretty much hiding this and moving these guys around, but also critical of the way they were handling it post the revelations. It just seemed everything was moving so slowly. There seemed to be little acknowledgement of reality of what was in their midst. Many Catholic people blamed the Globe for it. I would say, "The Globe is reporting the facts, and you might not like the facts, but don't shoot the messenger. If the church has something to refute these stories then let the church come forward and say 'that's not true'. But as you can see, they were neither taking responsibility for what's being reported nor are they trying to change it. Their silence tells me that this has happened."

I was one of the founding members of a group called The Boston Priests Forum which actually started to organize in the summer before the January of the revelation of the abuse. It began to have its first meetings in November before that January. The Priests Forum was a grassroots effort by priests to organize some fellowship among priests, to gather us together, to plan for bringing guest speakers in on different topics and things like that It had nothing to do with abuse because the story hadn't broken yet so it was not for that purpose. But just as we were getting organized, the story did break so that sort of was on the plate, if you will, in the beginning of the organization. It was a smaller group within the Forum who drafted a letter to Cardinal Law concerning the sexual abuse by priests. I wasn't one of the actual drafters, but I was part of the group that signed it to make a public statement about where priests were standing on these issues. The statement was a letter to Cardinal Law asking him to resign as the Archbishop of Boston because we thought he had lost the potential for continuing leadership. There was no confidence left in his leadership. It was shortly after that that he did resign. I personally am not convinced as some people are that our letter was the last straw. I know something about how things work in the church, and things don't tend to happen overnight in the Catholic Church. So my guess is that the movement toward his resignation was something that was being negotiated in Rome weeks maybe a month or two before our letter got there. Neither do I mean to dismiss the letter as insignificant. I think it probably was one compelling piece that led to that. December 13, 2003 was the day he resigned. He never responded to the letter in any way. Unfortunately, neither is that non-typical.

In December I wrote a very strong letter to Archbishop O'Malley where I was critical of the way the reconfiguration of the Archdiocese is being handled. I quoted some of that letter in my letter to the community, but not all of it. And I wrote in the context of a priest who is unhappy. I'm in the parish I want to be in, I'm doing the work I want to do, I don't want to go some place else, and I think the reconfiguration has been as successful in Concord as it possibly can be. So I wanted him to hear from somebody who is not disgruntled about his own work but here's my observation about what's going on. In the letter I said your plans appear to be ill-advised, your decisions are indecisive, are variable to the point of indecision, and your grasp on the damage being done seems to be elusive at best. That's very strong language for a pastor to write to an Archbishop. I wrote that on December 29, and I've not had a response since. And I'm not holding my breath on that either.

I know he gets a lot of critical mail, but it wasn't just an angry letter. I was trying to communicate. So not to get a response from Cardinal Law was not surprising. That's here. I wouldn't want to paint the whole Catholic Church in the United States that way. Other bishops might be more responsive than the Archdiocese of Boston.

The Voice of the Faithful began as a kind of listening session at St. John's in Wellesley. The folks there decided to organize themselves in some fashion. They organized a group of lay people who wanted a way for their voice to be heard. This happened just as we were having our listening sessions here in the parish on sex abuse. Two folks from Our Lady's, because they heard what had gone on in Wellesley, had gone to some meetings to see what was happening, and it was in the context of our listening sessions where they spoke about this, and said maybe we could do something like that here. By that time the Voice of the Faithful in Wellesley was becoming a pretty well known group in the Boston area. It was not an unknown commodity. So we inquired about forming a local chapter of the Voice of the Faithful here. As it turns out, although we didn't know it was going to turn out this way, we were the first chapter of Voice of the Faithful to form after the Wellesley group. Now they're all over the place and all over the United States.

The group still meets here. It became a controversial group. There were a lot of lay people who said, "No, they're not the voice of the faithful because they're not speaking for me." There were pastors who were suspicious of their motives although their three goals are support of victims of abuse by clergy, support of priests of integrity, and work for structural change in the church. It's that third one that worries some pastors. They are thoroughly Catholic people and they're not looking to overthrow the Roman Catholic Church. They're looking to make whatever changes need to be made so that we never again find ourselves in the position of looking back over the last 30 years and seeing that significant criminal and moral problems were hidden. In fact if you look at the membership roles of the Voice of the Faithful, you will find the average member is in their late 40s and older. They are long time faithful Catholic practicing people, they are involved in their parishes, they are not renegades, they are not rebels. They're the people who would otherwise be the pillars of your church. The ones you count on. The ones you call first when you need somebody to do something. And they're people who love the church and want to do anything they can to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Here at Our Lady's, it is the Voice of the Faithful people in this parish who took over the whole responsibility, the Archdiocese now requires that all parish staff and volunteers undergo Virtus training, which is a program for training professional and volunteer leadership in communities to be able to recognize the signs of abuse. So it's a pro-active effort by the church to say if this is going on in the church community, if we're serving children who are being abused at home, it's to recognize the signs of abuse. It is the Voice of the Faithful people at Our Lady's who pulled the program together. The local chapter now calls itself the Concord Area Voice of the Faithful. What happened was after the group formed at Our Lady's, other parishes in the area were trying to form groups, and they realized that in each parish they had a small group of people and that it would be better to consolidate, no need to reinvent the wheel all over the place. So the group continues to meet at Our Lady's, now Holy Family, but it is inclusive. I would say now when they are all together it's probably 50 people. I think they're meeting every two weeks. Although I am a registered member of the Voice of the Faithful and my name is on the rolls, it is basically a lay organization. It has my blessing, my endorsement, my support, but they also happen to meet on Wednesdays which is my day off, so I'm not usually here. The whole organization and the local chapters as well struggle with what their role is and how they can be most effective.

I think it was Cardinal Law who issued a ban on formation of new Voice of the Faithful groups. He said groups that already existed may continue to meet, but new groups cannot form and meet on church property. So we had already formed. That ban has yet to be lifted. Although Archbishop O'Malley has met with the leadership of the Voice of the Faithful in Newton at their home office, new groups can form but you can't meet on church property. And that's an affront to many Catholic people, "that I want to be part of an organization whose goals are trying to support the church but the church won't let me meet in my church." It's a paradox because in official documents the church is always calling for greater lay involvement. But any time it gets near positions of authority, any time it gets near criticism of those in authority, then there is the tendency to back off and say Father knows best. That may have worked 100 years ago when quite a few of the educated class and the average church goer was not, but times have changed incredibly so. Faith should always be a reasonable thing. Faith is not irrational. It deals in mysteries, the mystery of God, and it can't be reduced scientifically to data that can be weighed, but true faith should have a reasonable character about it. When truly faithful people realize that stuff they've been given is irrational, they're going to reject it and rightfully so.

One thing we should note that certainly there is a connection between the financial settlement of abuse cases and the reconfiguration of the Archdiocese. But if we could suppose for a moment that no priest had ever abused children, that there were no cases, that there were no settlements to be paid, we, the Archdiocese, would still today be in a financial crisis. The settlements exacerbate that and hastens the reality. But the larger reasons for the financial crisis are that over the last 50 years, the Archdiocese has supported and subsidized properties failing physically, parishes failing because of demographic shifts, and classic cases are urban centers where in Dorchester you have nine parishes in two square miles, and there used to be a need for that because it was a thickly Irish Catholic populated area, which it is not any more. So you've got buildings that are failing, you've got buildings that are virtually empty on Sunday because the population is no longer there, and you no longer have priests to staff all those parishes. The Archdiocese has also been subsidizing for years the debt of many parishes. I'm not a fiscal manager, but they tell me that it is fiscally unsound to do that kind of thing. So it's important to note that it is just not the crisis that brought us here.

A year ago this past December at a meeting with all the priests, the Archbishop announced that we were to begin a process in January, 2004 for studying parishes and to close a significant number of them. The study was done on the cluster level, which is usually somewhere between three and five or six parishes who are geographically contiguous. The cluster process which is ten years old now was designed to get parishes to collaborate with resources and personnel. Just as there's not a need to have a Voice of the Faithful in every parish, if the five parishes in the Concord cluster all have education programs, do we really need five directors, full-time paid directors, or could one person coordinate that? That kind of collaboration was being encouraged. So at the cluster level, the joke was just like the reality show Survivor on the island, the clusters were asked to gather and figure out who was going to die, who was going to close, and we were supposed to make our recommendations. Many clusters did that, and you can imagine the ill will that generates among the community.

Some clusters like the Concord cluster refused to recommend that anybody close. I'm not sure that was really what we should have done. I can remember saying in the cluster meeting, you know they're going to close places and they're just trying to get us involved in the process so it looks good. So it might be better for us to really look at this hard and long and say we could close here, but I was a minority voice. I felt if something was going to close in the Concord cluster, the obvious candidate was St. Joseph's. But I was outvoted on that so we did not recommend that. We recommended that no parishes be closed in the Concord cluster.

I was always feeling secure about Our Lady's because as I said to people over and over again, they won't cut down a healthy tree in the orchard. They're going to prune or cut down the dying trees or the trees that aren't producing, trees that don't have good fruit, but they're not going to cut down the healthy trees. I was convinced to my core of that. But on May 25, the FedEx truck drove up here and delivered a Special Delivery letter saying we were going to close.

The parishes in the Concord cluster were Our Lady's and St. Bernard's in Concord, St. Michael's in Bedford, St. Irene's in Carlisle, and St. Joseph's in Lincoln. Actually three of those five were technically closed. St. Joseph's was closed and absorbed by St. Julia's in Weston. However, the Archdiocese is slow to leave any community any town or city without a Catholic church, so St. Joseph's Church remains open and there is still mass there on Sunday and you can still get married there and still get buried there. I think it's the equivalent of putting somebody on a respirator because you don't want to acknowledge that this person is dying. Within a couple of years, they're going to have to take St. Joseph's off the respirator because the pastor in Weston isn't going to have the priests to continue to service St. Joseph's. Our Lady's and St. Bernard's were called a double suppression. Both parishes were closed, a new parish was formed out of those two closed parishes on the site of one of the parishes. Our Lady's sat 280 people and St. Bernard's seats 528, so it was pretty clear which building was going to remain open. It would have been foolish to suppress the two and then try to squeeze the two into Our Lady's.

I have been 10 years at Our Lady's and part of a very vital parish community, arguably the most vital community in the five parishes in the Concord cluster. It worked. There was a lot of spirit there. I think it was a model parish. I grieve almost as much as anyone. I didn't grow up in this parish. My secretary, Sheila Spooner, grew up on Highland Street right across from the church doors at our Our Lady's. She was baptized here, she was married here. All her brothers and sisters grew up here. So I don't have that kind of experience with the parish, but with everybody I grieve about the closing of Our Lady's. It's the spiritual and emotional equivalent of a death in a family.

This is a multi-colored banner which says "Open" on it, and we bought these because we were so confident that on May 25 the letter we were going to get was going to say that we were going to stay open, and we were going to put those up front on the church doors. Well, we never got to hang them up. It's like a death in the family. Emotionally, spiritually, it is a complete parallel to that experience. Grief, confusion, denial, loss, sadness, disorientation, anger, everything you might experience in death was in that experience. People talked about this, is there something we can do? That's nine months ago now.

There was a process for appealing those decisions. I wrote immediately to the Archbishop to appeal the decision personally as a pastor, and the parish council organized an appeal on which we had almost 1000 signatures on the letter of appeal. I told the folks obviously we're going to appeal this, but I don't want to get your hopes up as I don't expect the appeal will be successful, and it was not successful. So we began the work of transitioning to a new parish in Concord over last summer. The closing parishes were given a fair amount of freedom determining when the closing date would be and in working with the folks at St. Bernard's we decided that we wanted it to happen before Thanksgiving and Christmas as we felt it would be incredibly difficult to try to go through the holidays knowing that this would be the last Christmas. And, somehow it would be better to have that done before that. I'm glad now that is exactly what we did. So we chose October 25 as the closing.

The four weeks prior to that we had special services each Sunday. The first one was a service of lament, a ritual prayer where people could come and cry together. It was an open mike type of thing. People could express their anger and disappointment. There is a whole book of lamentations in the Bible. Having been through that experience I know that we need to provide that at other times for other reasons. People need to come together in their sadness as well in their joy. Then we had a service of healing and that was put together and presided over by all lay people. We were very clear that the service of healing wasn't in any way meant to suggest that we can all feel good now, but it was really the type of praying that healing would come. And the third service was an evening prayer service similar to that done at advent and lent seasons here, a candlelight service which has been part of what has been Our Lady's tradition. Then the fourth week Our Lady's always had a special relationship with West Concord Union Church across the street, we worked together in a lot of ways but especially in music because Jim Barkovic is the director of music for both parishes. So we had an evening service for Our Lady's and West Concord Union to sing together. It was so good and so sad and so happy. It was all of those things in one night. It was an opportunity to lift up the best of who we are and the best we are together.

For the first two Sunday services of those four, I didn't know who the pastor was going to be. I think it was October 10 when I got the letter saying I would be the pastor of the combined parish. It was a very tense time. I had applied for pastor in June right after the parish closings were announced. We had a joint transition team made up of about 50 people from the two parishes to engineer the transition. We were really handicapped all that summer working because we didn't know who the leadership would be. So we always had to talk about pastor "X" and we didn't know who pastor "X" would be and what he might be like, what he might want to do, and what he might not want to do. It would have been a lot easier if we had known at the beginning of the summer. So the transition work was basically the planning work and that was all done by the time I was appointed. And there was rejoicing.

I wanted to be named pastor of the new community and Father Murray at St. Bernard's wanted to retire. His desire to retire was a key piece of that because it removed the competition. If he had also wanted it, I really think probably neither one of us would have gotten it. It would have been foolish on the part of the Archdiocese to pick one in those circumstances.

As to the new name, last summer over about a month's time in the parish bulletins we invited everyone who wanted to submit potential names for the new parish. We got I think 200 different suggestions, but the three that came up most often were Holy Family, Holy Spirit, and St. Francis. The transition team decided that since the two former parishes had been Our Lady's and St. Bernard's that we wouldn't chose any variation of Our Lady and rather than change St. Bernard to for instance St. Francis, we wouldn't look at a saint's name. So the transition team was asked to submit three names to the Archbishop, but we're also told that all things being equal whatever your first choice is, it's going to be that. Holy Family had been the one most suggested in the popular poll.

We're sitting in the parish hall next to Our Lady's, and I'm told we're keeping this. But, I've been told a lot of things. Currently the church building is on the market. There are some complications here because the building we're sitting in is on the same parcel of land as the church building. So there are legal realities here that I only understand a little bit about. For instance, if the Archdiocese finds a buyer for the church, we can't simply cut the property line between the two buildings because there are frontage and real estate issues. The possibility is that if the Archdiocese sells the church say to another church community, and there are other church communities interested in the building, they might sell the church building with the proviso that the new church would lease this building to us for $1.00 a year for a 99-year lease. The Archdiocese has told us that we will be keeping this building. But there are legal things to be worked out. But I'll tell you if we lose this building, first of all there will be upheaval like you have never seen before and two, I don't know what we'll do. We have almost double the size of our staff. We've kept most of the staff from both parishes and that wasn't just to keep people happy. It was because with double the size of the community we need that kind of staff. The only other building we have is St. Bernard's rectory in Monument Square which is set up as a residence basically, not as an office building as this is. St. Bernard's rectory is big enough, but the cost of renovating St. Bernard's for the kind of use that this building gives us would be out of sight. Just for instance there is no handicap access to St. Bernard's rectory. So you'd need to put in an elevator, and we don't have that kind of money because we lost a lot of money in the reconfiguration. When a church is suppressed whatever monies there are go to the Archdiocese, and then the Archdiocese gives you startup money. Between the two parishes in that process we're probably losing about a million or million and a half dollars.The Our Lady's rectory on Main Street is not on the market yet, but it will be. I'm not sure why it's not on the market yet.

The masses now are big, but the church is huge. St. Bernard's church building was really larger than what St. Bernard's community needed. So now the folks who were members of St. Bernard's parish have the nice experience of their church being full all the time which is always a better experience than a church being half full. That's a very wonderful experience. Conversely, people from Our Lady's very much miss their church home in West Concord, so I'm needing to get used to new space. The two places are considerably different spaces. Our Lady's was a very traditional setup with the sanctuary at one end and the pews the rest of way to the door. At St. Bernard's the sanctuary is plucked in the middle of the building with pews on either side. It's a very different configuration for Catholic worship. I think the task for me was Christmas. I know Christmas was very difficult for many Our Lady's people because it was their first Christmas outside Our Lady's church. To go back to my earlier analogy, if you lose someone you love, you know what it is like to go through the first Thanksgiving without your mother, the first Christmas, it is just all pain that wells up. Even with that we had beautiful Christmas services, folks standing in the aisles, music was beautiful, spirit was good, and people were there.

During last summer a lot of West Concord people said I'll never go to that other church, but they do. We lost some people in the process. It's kind of a one-two punch. The first punch was the abuse crisis and that shook a lot of people in their Catholic faith and people left the church at that point. But then for some people who were still kind of reeling from the abuse crisis, then to have their vibrant parish close, that was just the last straw. In a community like Concord we have to figure out who's left because we're such a mobile community. People are coming and going from week to week. Many people have a couple of homes. In winter time, older people are in Florida, younger families have a place in New Hampshire for skiing. So we're in the process of redoing our database and we'll get some sense of actual numbers. But of the combined population of the two formal parishes, I don't think we've lost more than 5% if that much. So I think that's not too bad. I'd do anything to get that 5% back, but I think what we've been through, that's pretty good.

I know my appointment as pastor was an immediate incentive for a lot of West Concord people to make the change to the new parish. In the beginning people were complaining about the parking and that there was hardly a space. They stopped complaining but they're still coming, so what people have done is found out where the spaces are. The lot behind the church is pretty big, but it's not big enough for everybody. Not only that we have Mass on Sunday morning, we've got four churches in Concord center and now one of them has doubled in size, so parking is at a premium for worshipers anywhere in Concord center. I think people are finding places. When you stop getting complaints, you know somehow it got resolved. We still get people from Sudbury, Stow, Acton, Lincoln. The people who were commuting to Our Lady's are still commuting.

I didn't make the full 12 years at Our Lady's and get to the centennial, but my clock starts again. The 12-year stint is a combination of two six-year terms, so I'm definitely here for six more years, and at the end of six I would need to be renewed for another six. At the end of my first six-year term at Holy Family, I will be seven years away from retirement. Retirement is at 70. So I have the possibility of another six-year term ahead of me at the end of six years with only one year beyond that before I retire. I don't think I would want to move to another place in those last six years. I couldn't have seen myself staying at Our Lady's forever. I don't think that would have been healthy for me or the parish, but there is a whole new challenge about establishing a parish that is very fresh.

Fleming, Father Austin.

Text mounted 26th September 2012; Images mounted 10th October 2012. RCWH.