Advent is traditionally a time of anticipation and joy, but for members of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish recent news has tinged the season with feelings of loss and anxiety. Last Friday word quickly spread through the Columbia-Savin Hill community that Cardinal Sean O'Malley had reassigned BMT's well-liked pastor, Fr. Paul Soper, to Saint Albert the Great Parish of Weymouth, effective in early January.
Parishioners had long feared some such change because Soper had been suffering from a hard-to-diagnose neurological ailment which left him tiring easily, walking with a cane, and relying on others to drive him around. Studies are continuing to determine whether he is in the early stages of Parkinson's disease.
Though Soper "had high hopes of being able to stay at BMT for a long time and to help to lead BMT and her sister parishes in Dorchester into their bright and exciting future," he dutifully and gratefully accepted the request that he resign one post and take up another.
"Cardinal Seán, in an act of fatherly solicitude, looking at my recent ill health and the fact that I have to stay most nights in Weymouth with my sister, and looking at what is going to be an increasingly complex world of pastoral planning and parish interrelationships in Dorchester, has decided that Saint Albert's would be a good assignment for me, and that it would be best to send a new pastor to BMT," Soper said this week.
This transfer will not be the first time this Weymouth native found his tour of duty interrupted. Ordained in 1990, he did complete his initial two five-years stints: first as parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley, then doing double duty in Lowell as parochial vicar at St. Rita Parish and as campus minister at the University of Massachusetts - Lowell.
However, starting in July 2001 Fr. Soper served only two-and-a-half years as parochial vicar at Revere's large St. Anthony of Padua Parish when the retirement of the pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Beverly in 2004 led to his being named administrator of that parish for about six months until it was closed.
His next assignment (and first as pastor) was another one requiring diplomacy and patience: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, created on Sept. 1, 2004 as a result of the suppressions of Dot's St. Margaret and St. William parishes.
However parishioners felt about "reconfiguration," they gradually began to appreciate this self-effacing, polite priest. Few would guess, for example, that this astronomy major from Harvard continues to do research into the distribution of matter in the solar system with the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge.
Soper's little "fashion statements" indicate his deeper concerns. His choice of guayabera shirts for casual wear bespeaks his support for sister parishes in Latin America including one in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and the other, another Blessed Mother Teresa parish in Guayaquil, Ecuador, headed by Fr. Tom Oates, former pastor of St. William's.
Teenage acolytes imitated his former practice of going barefoot while serving on the altar, recalling God's command to Moses to take off his sandals before the burning bush "for the place where you stand is holy ground."
Soper will be missed perhaps most sorely by the parish's Vietnamese members "who were just beginning to feel secure and connected" after the move from St. Williams. Parishioner Anh Vuh, who taught Soper enough Vietnamese so that he could offer bilingual masses, expresses his people's deep appreciation for Soper's "taking the time to learn our language not only to communicate but to be able to understand the Vietnamese people's anger, fear and sense of loss."
Soper's transfer comes on the heels of the reassignments this fall of BMT Parochial Vicar Fr. Tom Rossi to St. Bridget's in Framingham and in-residence Fr. Bill Kelly to Sacred Heart in North Quincy. Their departure and Soper's health problems forced the parish to drastically reduce its Mass schedule and curtail services to senior complexes like Bellflower and Catherine Clark Apartments, despite the heroic efforts of Parochial Associate Sr. Linda Ballard, OSC.
However, BMTers needn't worry that Soper's exit will trigger further loss of staff. He is inviting no one along with him to Weymouth and fully expects his yet-to-be-selected successor to work with current BMT personnel. Perhaps mindful of the acrimony that swirled around the Archdiocesan decision to meld the two parishes, the brunt of which Soper often had to bear, he offers this parting plea, "Be good to the new guy. Remember that he didn't cause this to happen, any more than I did. You have loved and supported me for five years. Love and support him. Give him time to figure things out, and work with him as he does."