In fact, my refection wasn’t totally off mark. The fact that the Rubenesque Franciscan friar, who has led this parish for 10 years, calls out to me from inside the souvenir store is far from coincidental. “Thank God for tourists and visitors,” he says after the initial greetings. “At this point in time they are just as numerous as our regular church goers, and just as vital.”
Even from an economic standpoint. Padre Antonio doesn’t say it out loud, but conveys it clearly with a little parable: “A couple of months ago, a Korean family showed up. They were looking at the church — as many others tourist do who have never been to Europe — in the same way a (tourist to Italy) would look at St. Peter’s Basilica. We chatted for a while, they asked about the renovations, then a couple of weeks later, an envelope came in the mail from South Korea. Inside, totally unexpected, there was a check … for $3,000! Divine Providence does exist!” he laughs.
Of course, it will take a lot of providence to complete a renovation project that ranges from tuckpointing on the outside to a complete upgrade of the interior, including a refurbishing of outdated heating and electrical systems that no longer meet safety and efficiency standards. “The church has been up since 1899,” explains Padre Antonio, who as parish leader also has to wear the administrator’s hat, “but nothing has been done for the last 25 years.”
The reason has to do with the nature of the neighborhood. Once filled with Italian families who have since moved out and up, the parish is now home to not-so-ethnic young professionals. “The turnover in this neighborhood is tremendous,” continues Padre Antonio, whose bald head, healthy red complexion and perpetually smiling face fits the friar’s stereotype like a glove. “They move in, stay for a few years, and as soon as they have a child, and move out, even though most of them do so reluctantly. The reasons are high rent and a chronic lack of space – especially parking space. The latter also compels many old timers, who would like to come back to church every Sunday, to show up only for major holidays, religious ceremonies and, sadly, funerals.”
When the Cassino-born, Naples-educated, newly ordained Antonio Nardoianni first came to America, the Italian community was still worthy of its name. His first post was across the river. In 1975, he was vice-pastor at East Boston’s Mt. Carmel, one of the parishes closed a few years ago by the archdiocese after a long and bitter controversy. “Back then, the church was truly a point of reference,” he recalls. “Mind, this was before the internet, RAI International, and the right to vote for Italians abroad. People would come to me with all sorts of issues, which often were not even faith-related. As a result, however, during the two Sunday masses in Italian, the church was packed. Today, during the winter, the only Mass in Italian we have here draws between 70 and 80 people. In the warm months, thanks to tourists and visitors, numbers go up a bit. But of course you cannot make a comparison.”
He knows exactly what he is talking about. During his 20 years of service as leader of two different parishes in Toronto, Padre Antonio witnessed the transformation of the Italian community, the lack of fresh arrivals, the inevitable disappearance of the old timers, the progressive integration of those born here: in short, the passage of time. To make matters worse, he returned to Boston in 2004, in the midst of what was probably the darkest period ever for the American Catholic church in general and Boston’s in particular: the pedophilia scandal had fully exploded and archdioceses across the country were forced to pay millions in victim compensations. Moreover, more than half of existing parishes in town were being shut down and/or merged with neighboring ones due to a shortage of church goers and vocations. Many among the faithful protested, sometimes spectacularly.
“I might not agree with the way they did it, but the downsizing had to be done,” the 65 year-old priest reflects as his perpetual smile temporarily fades. Institutions survive as long as there is a need for them, he says. In other words, having too many churches is just as bad as having too few. “In the North End,” he explains, “the average attendance today is between six and seven hundred, which would be a good number if concentrated in single church, The problem is, there are three within walking distance form each other. (The other two — Sacred Heart and St. Steven — are no longer parishes but still offer some services.) In this way, resources — pastoral as well as economic — are stretched too thin and instead of a full church with a full choir and a full set of activities, we have three half-empty ones.”
Despite all this, Padre Antonio — currently in his fourth mandate as a pastor here — firmly believes the worst has passed. Maybe, he says, it’s the Pope Francis effect. Regardless of the reason, numbers are up, tourist and visitors keep coming to church, which is open until midnight during the summer weekends, and the diminishing number of old timers is partly being replaced by recently emigrated professionals from Italy. Although they live far from the North End, when it is time to attending Mass or taking part in other church-related activities, they cannot resist the call of their own language and culture.
“There is a great future for this parish,” says the Franciscan friar, the smile returning to his face. “But we have to imagine it, to build it, to actively make it possible.” In other words, the church must be renovated in order to stand the passing of time. As Padre Antonio is about to bid me adio, he takes another look at the scaffoldings and concludes with a sigh: “I don’t know how long they will keep me here. I just wish to stay long enough to see this work finished.”