It was so packed at St. Gregory's Sunday Mass last weekend thatthey had to simulcast the morning service on TVs in the basement church. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Council President Maureen Feeney and Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley took seats in the pews. And 12 St. Gregory's Elementary School children sang: "You are my hero."
Hundreds came to celebrate Monsignor Paul Thomas Ryan's 50th anniversary as priest at Sunday's Mass, showing he was a man who touched many lives.
Ryan will step down as pastor of St. Gregory's on June 1 after serving there for 27 years. After turning 75, Catholic priests have to write a request each year to continue as pastor or resign. At age 76, Ryan said that it is time to let someone else lead the parish, but he isn't finished serving the church even in retirement.
"I will go to the diocese and fill in at any place they need me," he said, "and I'll assist them until my boots fall off."
Genia Saniuk-Heinig, director of the church's youth choir and a parishioner for 50 years, said that it's going to be tough when he retires as pastor.
"It's going to be a really hard time filling his shoes," she said. "He always calls St. Gregory's and Lower Mills this little corner of the vineyard. Right here, in this corner of the vineyard, we can make a difference."
For Mary McGaugh-Armijos, St. Gregory's was a family. It was the place she attended school, completed first communion and confirmation, got married and where her daughter was baptized. Now in Canton, McGaugh-Armijos remembers feeling like she could depend on Ryan for anything.
"If you needed advice, my family thought we could always go to Monsignor Ryan and get the help we needed."
Even after several decades, Mary McCue remembered Ryan as a young priest at St. Peter in Lowell in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"I was converting and he was my coach," McCue said. "He always said you have to do what's in your heart - don't listen to other people, and also respect God."
When her only son was born, she decided to name him Thomas Paul, in honor of Ryan.
"He just walked with God," she said.
Deborah Ali, who teaches performance arts at St. Gregory's, said that she will never forget the first time she met Ryan.
"When I walked into this school 20 years ago, the second I shook his hand I knew I was with someone with a direct connection with Jesus," she said.
Over his 27 years at the church, parishioners noted the impact he has had on the church and school grounds. Peter Woloschuk, who has been attending St. Gregory's for over 50 years, calls Ryan, "a very spiritual man, also one given to details."
"I guess you'll call him a renaissance man," he added, who did everything from making the church fit for worship to improving the school grounds.
"I just tried to do things the best I could," Ryan said. "My whole philosophy was I will strive to do what I can to help."
When he arrived at St. Gregory's in 1981, he said there was a challenge to try to get to know all of the 82 staff and "then to keep things solvent and make progress." He said, like all difficulties in life, one should stay determined. "We can get there if you stay with it."
"He has been such a wonderful pastor," Cardinal O'Malley said. "We count on him to be active in many new ways in his retirement."