Editorial: New names, same faith at Catholic parishes

Catholic church-goers in Dorchester and Mattapan received some breaking news from the altar over the weekend. In Neponset, the longtime parishes of St. Ann and St. Brendan were united into a single entity, effective Aug. 1. Each church building will maintain its identity, but the archdiocese required that the newly minted parish carry a new name.

After fielding nominations from the faithful in early July – an effort that generated dozens of options – an online survey was held to narrow the choices to a top three for Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who made the final call. Roughly 300 people participated in the rank-voting survey.

This weekend, church-goers in Neponset learned that they are now members of St. Martin de Porres parish, commemorating a 16th century Dominican brother who was canonized in 1962. A similar process was held to pick a new name for the merger of St. Angela in Mattapan and St. Matthew in Dorchester, two largely Black, Haitian congregations that will now be known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish.

Both names— St. Martin de Porres and Our Lady of Mount Carmel— are meaningful to the people who attend Mass and receive sacraments at the four churches.

St. Martin de Porres Velázquez is the patron saint of mixed-race people and racial harmony, the Peruvian-born son of a Spanish nobleman and a Black mother who was a freed slave. He is also the patron saint of health workers.

Fr. Brian Clary, the pastor at the Neponset parish, had this to say about the choice: “In a time of pandemic, we honor St. Martin, who is patron of public health workers; in a time of intrinsic racial awareness; in a time of economic uncertainly for so many, St. Martin was in poverty his whole life. St. Martin was a voice of faith, humility, unity, equality and charity.  He is the saint of our time and we get to honor him.”

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a reference to the home of the Carmelites in the Holy Land who took Mary, the mother of Jesus, as their patroness. This incarnation of the Blessed Mother resonates strongly in the Catholic Haitian community. In Haiti, Our Lady of Carmel is believed by many of the faithful to have appeared in a 19th century apparition at a spectacular waterfall called Saut d’Eaut (pronounced So-do). Many Haitian believers make a pilgrimage to the site for a festival each July, bathing and baptizing new members of the faith in the waters of Saut d’Eaut.

Dorchester, which has had a significant Catholic presence since the 1860s, has seen other parish communities come and go: St. William, St. Kevin, St. Leo. Thriving centers of worship and learning in the first-half of the 20th century, all three belong to the ages or are used by other denominations. Others, like St. Margaret on Columbia Road, maintain their name within the context of the church building, but are under the umbrella of a different parish name. (In the case of St. Margaret, the church is part of Blessed Mother Teresa parish.)

The old St. Paul church— where I was married in 2000— was re-cast as Holy Family Parish in the 1990s, when it merged with Uphams Corner’s St. Kevin’s congregation, which was demolished to clear the way for new housing — called Uphams Crossing— in 2015.

In Neponset and Mattapan today, it will no doubt take time for Catholics – whether they are devout or more lax in their attendance and beliefs – to embrace new names. But it’s not the first time— and it’s not likely to be the last time— that the ebb and flow of demographics and faith has neccesitated change. It’s the very nature of an always evolving, dynamic city neighborhood.