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Part of an occasional series called “Project Lawrence”
LAWRENCE, Mass. — St. Patrick's Parish, founded in Lawrence in 1872, used to be a haven for the Irish community. These days the rustic green steeple shares a street corner with a Vietnamese noodle shop and a Dominican restaurant.
As the city has evolved, so has the parish. Every Sunday, Mass is celebrated in English, Vietnamese and Spanish.
St. Patrick’s has broadened its mission to shepherd not just its flock, but the whole city. It runs a meal center to combat hunger, dishing out more than 200,000 meals a year. And in a time when so many inner city Catholic schools are shutting their doors, this parish saved its parochial school by merging with another and consolidating their efforts.
People at St. Patrick's say a lot of this change is because of one man — Father Paul O'Brien. He's a Harvard graduate who joined the priesthood and took over this parish in 2001.
Father O'Brien jokes that he got the gig because no else wanted the job.
"I can only guess that a really big, multilingual parish in an economically depressed community with a big Catholic school and all sorts of question marks about the future was not appealing to plenty of people who were asked to consider it," he said.
He says back in 2001 the community was ethnically segregated.
"When I was assigned here actually it was with a specific mission from the archbishop. He said, 'You need to work to open the doors of that parish to everybody in the community,' " Father O'Brien recalled.
One of the ways he did that was by bringing on Hosffman Ospino, who now runs the Hispanic ministry at St. Patrick's. Ospino is also a professor of theology at Boston College and a leading researcher on Hispanic Catholics. He says those early days of ethnic tension are gone. These days, he has a new worry.
"I think the biggest challenge is the family — the family unit all throughout the city of Lawrence is, unfortunately, broken." Ospino says single moms, domestic violence and absent parents are too common in Lawrence. And he feels this leads to poverty and gang culture. This lack of family is a social vacuum where he thinks the church can step in, and so it has.
"We have a project, in Spanish we call it Projecto Matrimonial, which is Project Marriage, and we invite couples that are living together or are married civilly to consider the possibility of receiving the sacrament of marriage in the church," Ospino said. "And then we have these communal weddings. Sometimes, we have five weddings, seven weddings."
Ospino's focus on the family isn't isolated.
"The social problems of Lawrence are huge," said Father O'Brien, adding that these social woes trickle down to teenagers who don't have strong parental role models.
Before his time, the church focused on ministering to the teens in the pews, but most teens in Lawrence aren't in the pews, which made him wonder.
"In a community in where we have a ginormous percentage of our kids involved in gang life or gang culture, how could you be a disciple of Jesus and focus ministry to teenagers mostly on the kids who go to church?"
So O'Brien shifted his mission.
"We made very conscious basic decisions about throwing open the doors to all the kids on the street. What do kids do who live on the street? They play basketball," he said.
And so every Sunday night the church opens its gym doors for anyone who wants to play. One of the regulars is Hector Heredia. He's 24, has a bit of bling in both ears and tattoos over his arms.
He's also deeply reflective, almost philosophical about his life and the way it turned out because of this place. He's been coming here to play ball on and off for a decade.
"It was kind of another home away from home," he said. "If it wasn't for this on Sundays, I don't know what I would be doing in the streets."
Truthfully, Heredia didn't really have a home. "I grew up without parents," he said. "They were there until I was maybe 13 [or] 14."
His mom was never in the picture. His dad was sort of around, but one day just walked out. "There was a point in time I used to live in my car," Heredia recalled.
Still, he kept coming to basketball and he says Father O'Brien always made him feel welcome, even though he doesn't go to church that often.
"He's not on top of you to go to church. He does mention it — you should come to church here and there," Heredia said. "But he doesn't want to put it on you because he doesn't know what you going through, or if you just come here to release some stress, he doesn't want to stress you out or something."
Heredia insists St. Patrick's has changed his life — it brought him to Father O'Brien, who's essentially become a father figure, someone who's now helping him navigate college.
His experience is symbolic of what the church is trying to do.
Ospino, who runs the Hispanic Ministry, says the story of the city of Lawrence is a biblical one.
"There's a passage in the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, 'Where sin abounds, God's grace abounds more,' and I think that's what I see happening in the city of Lawrence," he said. "Lawrence is a city that has gone through a very difficult time for a long, long while."
But people say the dark cloud over the city is beginning to lift.
"I think that the city hit bottom already," he said, so now there's nowhere to go but up.
This segment aired on December 17, 2014.