By Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and the Boston City Paper 1/2015
And also sent, along with a personal letter, to His Eminence Seán Patrick O’Malley OFM
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words” – Father Steve Madden, quoting Saint Francis of Assisi.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” — Meister Eckhart
Today I need to use words to convey my feelings because I know of no action that can get my message across in a better way — my heart is broken, and I am not alone. An entire parish is grieving with me.
Father Steve Madden, the very beloved pastor of Saint Mary’s church, has been told by Cardinal Sean O’Malley that he has been reassigned to be in charge of four parishes in South Boston.
This departure was not expected; and it hurts, deeply. To the core.
I want to be eloquent, I want to be politically correct, a respectful Catholic, I want to keep noting that “priests take an oath of obedience” and I want to keep reminding myself that priests assignments are usually not permanent. Times change. Priests come and go.
But I can’t. This one hurts too much.
See, back in 2000, I wrote a column in this very space, “Saying Bon Voyage to Father Steve Madden.” The then-parochial vicar of the parish was being reassigned. We would miss him terribly but understood; priests get reassigned; and because of their oath of obedience, they go where the superior tells them to go. In that space I talked about his many good qualities and how powerful his homilies are, but I understood that priests get transferred. At his final mass in June 2000, there was an emotional standing ovation. I was there in the front row with an old fashioned camcorder, recording his words.
He was so sad to be leaving, choking back tears and ended with, “[Foxboro] is a great place to live.” This place had become his home. The parish fell in love with him. He was crying as he left church that day. We all were.
Seven years passed, and with the lovable and well-respected Father Tom Reilly at the helm, we had a string of priests here helping him – Father Li, Father Jay Makos, Father (now Monsignor) John McLaughlin, and several others. They were all wonderful. But they were not Father Steve. It just wasn’t the same. There was a void. And to be honest, for a few years, I stopped going to church. Not because Father Steve wasn’t there, but out of my own issues and laziness.
And then, in late 2007, the unprecedented happened – lightning struck twice. Father Steve was coming back – as pastor.
From the Foxboro Reporter, 1/31/08: [“I’m obviously very excited about coming back,” said Madden, who currently serves as pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Watertown and will succeed Rev. Thomas Reilly as pastor locally. Reilly, who served at St. Mary’s for a decade, was reassigned last month to Our Lady of Assumption Church in the Green Harbor section of Marshfield. Rev. Jason Makos, associate pastor at St. Mary’s, made the announcement last Sunday morning. “He told me that before he even got the words out of his mouth that people were on their feet clapping,” said Madden, adding that he already has received several cards and phone calls from old friends and well-wishers.]
Father Steve was coming home!
By 2010 I was going to Sunday mass again, but to be honest, I wasn’t planning to make it a regular thing – but then there was Father Steve, and I starting going every week again. It’s rare that I miss mass these days.
Father Steve often says that a church is only as good as the homily and choir – the Saint Mary’s choir is outstanding, but there is no homily like one from Father Steve. He has a connection with the people that is obvious and real – he is one of us. A fellow passenger on the life train, finding our way to God.
Father Steve once said that saying mass was the easiest part of his job – it was everything else that was hard. Our pastor of Saint Mary’s is everywhere he is needed, 24/7 on the job, our confessor, our leader, our friend, celebrating sacraments, officiating weddings, performing baptisms, and saying funeral masses, overseeing the myriad of youth programs and religious classes, giving spiritual guidance and comfort and love to this parish, not to mention all of the administrative work he does to keep Saint Mary’s running. And at every mass, he knows everyone’s name. He knows their stories. At their funerals, they are not strangers – they are friends. He has anecdotes and stories about each of them.
It’s at mass that I connect most with him – each time he ends his sermon with his signature “God Bless You All” and I think, “Message received.” The church is always full. The kids love him. Adults confide in him and he has unified the community in ways no one else could. And then he went further and reached out to other denominations and coordinated ecumenical services each year, masses celebrating life, masses of thanks, impromptu vigils, countless collections of food and coats and clothing and baby needs and Christmas presents… He is always looking for ways to make God more accessible to people and to encourage people to become more involved in community service and helping others. And to bring them closer to God.
And in so many of his sermons, so many of his talks – he reveals he is a fallible human being, also seeking answers, also wondering the “why’s” of life, expressing his own doubts and confusions about this world as he tries to make sense of it for us – that makes his connection all the more real – he is one of US.
I will NEVER forget his homily after Sandy Hook. And countless others. And the uncountable times I left one of his masses thinking, “I feel so much better.”
He is my friend. He is a friend to thousands of people.
And for so long (years!) he single handedly ran the parish as the only priest, with occasional visiting priests at mass to help out. Then came the happy arrival of Deacon Paul and Father Brian. Both exceptional men of God, we welcomed them immediately – and it was obvious that they got along splendidly with Father Steve – they were co-workers and friends and that camaraderie — led by Father Steve, made more people WANT to go to church.
And then came the tragic death of Father Brian to cancer. Father Steve at his side. As a parish we all took that passing very hard, like Father Steve, Father Brian was a rock star of a priest. We’d lost one of the greatest servants of God we’d ever meet. Father Steve had lost his best friend. And then Father Steve lost his beloved mother, and as a parish we grieved with him.
And Deacon Paul, we fell in love with him too. The magnificent homilies, the ever-present smile, the genuine compassion and love for people – we were indeed very blessed to have this team in our church.
Father Steve is a priest of incredible skill, a man born for the job, a man of genuine humility, and I cannot think of a better man for the job of pastor of Saint Mary’s.
And now he is leaving.
I’ll still be at Saint Mary’s every week, I know that no single priest makes or breaks a parish and life goes on — but the void will remain. And this one is going to be VERY hard. This loss will resonate for years. I speak for many people when I say that.
Cardinal Sean, with tremendous respect, your decision, no matter how logical, or necessary, is ripping out a piece of the heart of Saint Mary’s Church and this community of faith. We couldn’t do anything about Father Brian – that was God’s will, but Father Steve belongs here, in his home of Foxboro, with the people who love and NEED him. I don’t even know if it’s possible for one man to run four parishes. You are our Cardinal and leader and I respect and admire you, but I believe this decision is not the right one. I beg you to reconsider it. Your Eminence, this decision is hurting Saint Mary’s terribly.
We will of course welcome new priests, new deacons, and hopefully continue to grow as a parish. But I wish you would reconsider your decision and allow Father Steve to remain as our pastor.
Because much like Saint Peter, Father Steve has become our rock, the very foundation of the church. The right pastor can make or break a church. The right pastor can build a parish or drive people away. Father J. Joseph Kierce of the former Saint Kevin Parish in Dorchester — my spiritual home for twenty five years — kept that struggling parish running for FIFTY years, being everywhere he was needed (usually walking there). He was the ONLY ONE who could have done it. He was our rock. That church survived fifty years against all odds because of HIM.
That’s what Father Steve does here. He is literally our shepherd. Our rock.
Cardinal Sean, Father Steve took an oath of obedience and is a good priest and will go where you tell him to go. But your decision has broken his heart – and ours. This is not about being resistant to change – this is about unnecessary change. When something works you don’t need to fix it. With great respect your Eminence, I beg you to reconsider. We all do.
Father Steve is our friend, our pastor, the SOUL of Saint Mary’s.
In 2000, I ended my goodbye column to Father Steve with these words: “We’re going to miss you very much. Good bye, Father Steve. God bless you!”
This time, I will say this. Cardinal Sean, we beg you to reconsider. But if this decision is final, please know that our hearts in Foxboro are broken, and while we will respect your decision and welcome our new pastor and priests, there will always be a piece of our hearts with Father Steve Madden. There will always be a void here. We have a lost another great priest, and this time, it wasn’t due to illness – but a decision that can change. Your Eminence, would you reconsider?
To quote Dickens, no matter what, we will not shut out the lessons that have been taught to us. With or without Father Steve, our parish will live on and thrive. As a parish, we will do our best to remember all that Father Steve taught us, to continue to grow as a people of faith, and we are so much better as a parish because of his leadership, guidance and friendship. We will do our best to continue his mission and grow this parish and continue to do work in God’s name.
There would be no better way to honor Father Steve than to continue the work he has started here – twice.
And so, while there are NO words to convey my own personal gratitude to Father Steve for all he is done so I will end with this:
Father Steve, THANK YOU.
Father Steve, I am not alone when I say this to you: I LOVE YOU.
The people of Foxboro LOVE YOU.
And no matter what, you will always be in our thoughts and prayers. We all just wish your stay here was permanent.
God bless you, our dear friend and shepherd.