At St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Brewster it’s all about renewal, physical, and spiritual.
The physical renewal has taken place over the last eight months, a $3.5 million gut renovation of the church interior that has significantly altered the experience of worshippers. But it’s the spiritual renewal of parish life that has Father Richard Gill, pastor of St. Lawrence O’Toole, most excited.
“I think there’s been a marked change, and there’s great enthusiasm,” said Father Gill of the turnaround he’s seen in his parish over the last few years. “We have hundreds of people who are highly engaged in the parish. People who are proud of their faith, engaged in their faith and are becoming more prayerful, and I think that is the key thing.”
The turnaround in the parish’s spiritual life has been, no less than the renovation, the result of a specific plan, a blueprint with a goal in mind. The renovation, which was completed in April, has converted the sanctuary at St. Lawrence O’Toole into a lighter, more open airy space, a far cry from the heavy, somewhat gloomy and claustrophobic space it had been.
The spiritual blueprint was drafted to turn St. Lawrence O’Toole into an “evangelizing church,” very much in keeping with the spirit of the Making All Things New initiative across the archdiocese. Father Gill wants his parishioners to be disciples.
“We’re very convinced here that the future of the Church is in reaching out and not simply being, like the Cardinal has used the image of a nursing home where we’re just taking care of our own,” he explained. “We have to be reaching out to bring in people who have either fallen away or never knew Christ and so we decided to be very much an evangelizing parish reaching out with a lot of programs and bringing people to Christ.
“We started that a couple of years ago and we’ve pretty much dedicated everything toward that. Disciples by their nature go out and reach out to others.”
On June 27 Cardinal Dolan visited St. Lawrence O’Toole to help the parish celebrate its centennial, consecrate the altar and re-dedicate the new sanctuary. Following the jam-packed Mass the Cardinal met parishioners at a reception in the parish hall next door.
“It was a beautiful moment. He spent time with the people, greeted everyone,” Father Gill said.
It wasn’t always thus at the pretty stone church at 31 Prospect St. About seven years ago when the parish school closed, the mood was gloomy. Father Gil said the unsuccessful fight to save the school had sapped the parish of energy. When he came to O’Toole about three years ago he decided the parish needed a new raison d’être.
“There was a bit of deflation that went on after the school finally closed,” he acknowledged. “So we needed to give the parish a new mission and we needed to give a new purpose to the school building because otherwise it was sitting there as an empty white elephant. So we started a very successful new pre-k and kindergarten in one part of the building and that’s been going very well. It brings young families into the parish.
“And on the other side we do religious education and we do youth ministry and we’ve renovated the entire second floor to be the adult faith formation center. We gutted the second floor and created conference rooms and state of the art LED screens and high tech assets to help us communicate the faith. So now we have a very inviting area for parish activities and multiple activities simultaneously.”
But the major physical renovation was to the church interior, which was thoroughly gutted including the removal of the old 30-inch thick brick columns. Steel columns only eight inches thick replaced them allowing for much better visibility, especially from the sides of the Church. Old discolored, stained and cracked plaster was removed and the walls were sheet-rocked with beautiful wainscoting installed along the walls, new lighting was installed to highlight the rich, dark wood ceiling.
“It looks much brighter!” Father Gill said. “It’s got a much more elegant, warm and inviting feel to it.”
The other major goal in the renovation was to create more community space. They opened up space by relocating the confessionals in the narthex to a new wing built off the side. The new wing connects the church to the parish hall. They also created an “adoration chapel” allowing “for 24-7 adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.”
“We wanted to create enough space for people to flow in and out of the church and have handicapped access much improved. So when we built this new wing on the side of the church we achieved all those things,” Father Gill explained.
The spiritual renovation was no less extensive. The blueprint for that was provided by “Discovering Christ, “ a seven-week ChristLife Ministries program from Baltimore, Md., which is designed to generate conversions, renewed commitment and an intensified sense of community.
“We adopted that a couple of years ago and we’ve had hundreds of people go through that and so many of them have found their way back to the faith,” he said. “We use it now as part of our RCIA program for coming into the faith. We put as many people through it as we possibly can. So that starts people off on a path of walking towards discipleship.”
St. Lawrence O’Toole also has a strong women’s ministry they call GIFT, Growing in Faith Together, which addresses faith questions that women may have and a men’s ministry that meets Saturday mornings. There is also Bible study and a retreat program that focuses on small group ministry, which Father Gill says is at the heart the parish’s evangelization and discipleship efforts.
There is also a very active youth ministry. Currently St. Lawrence O’Toole has 565 people registered in religious education at all levels.
“We’ve created a team of young adults who are prayerful and highly focused on leading young people closer to Christ,” Father Gill explained. “It has to be a very personal, relational thing where you get to know the person. You have to authentically care about them and their eternal salvation. You have to pray for them and you have to walk the walk yourself because young people notice authenticity.”
The parish, which now has about 2,000 registered families, is about 10 to 15 percent Spanish-speaking, mostly immigrants from Guatemala. They too are made to feel welcome. There is a Spanish-language Mass Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. There is also an English as a second language course class every week and other Spanish programs.
“We’ve got two cultures here in the parish but they are a very integral part of the parish. They really bring a great energy,” said Father Gill. Other Masses are Saturday at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 8 a.m. 9:30 a.m. 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (a teen Mass). Daily Masses are at 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.
“I think there’s been a marked change in the parish and there’s great enthusiasm,” Father Gill said. “We have hundreds of people that are highly engaged. We’ve got a long way to go. The way I look at it, it’s not the 2,000 households that are our market only, two-thirds of them aren’t particularly active. So that’s our first goal to get them active. But there are another 15,000 people in this town. So that’s the field of evangelization for us.
“But now I think we have hundreds of people who are proud of their faith and are engaged and open to the Holy Spirit. Catholic life is communicating the Gospel and bringing people into relationship with Christ. I’m convinced now that we are really on our way to doing that.”