Photo: Felix Carroll
'We Are a Church on Fire'
By Linda Andrade Rodrigues (Dec 16, 2011)
A little church in the small town of Acushnet, Mass., St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was facing tough times. The congregation was dwindling, and Mass attendance was at an all-time low. The empty confessional was collecting dust, and donations were dismal.
But then the unthinkable happened.
Today, St. Francis Xavier is one of the most vibrant parishes in the diocese with standing-room only Masses, confessional lines, a busload of parishioners participating in the March for Life, and an abundance of freewill donations that will make them debt-free by April.
"Jesus is on the property," said Mary Cardoza, the spark that inflamed the parish. "We are a church on fire."
'I Was Always a Zombie Catholic'
Brought up in a Catholic family, Mary Cardoza attended Catholic schools.
"I had one foot in the world and one foot in the Church," she said.
But although she fulfilled her Sunday obligation, she never participated in church activities and often rebelled against the laws of the Church.
"I was always a zombie Catholic," she said laughing.
When she turned 40, she decided it was time to cultivate a relationship with God.
"You only go to Him when you are in trouble," she said.
She began meeting with a group for moms after church, who began teaching her about the faith.
It was on a group pilgrimage to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., where she had a life-changing experience. A message board of activities listed "Eucharistic Adoration."
"What's Adoration?" she asked the group. "Jesus is really in the Eucharist," they answered. "But what do you do?" she asked. "You talk to Him," they said. "Okay, so I go in there, kneel down and something happens — a spiritual experience. I'm on fire for an hour," she said. "I knew without a doubt Jesus was in the Eucharist. He was real. We were connected."
Back at home, she had no idea what to do with her newfound faith.
After Sunday Mass, her pastor, the Rev. Daniel Lacroix, asked her to attend a Stewardship Committee meeting.
"So I go to this meeting, and it is the most depressing meeting I've ever been to," she said. "They start telling me all the stuff that is wrong — church attendance and collections were down; no one was going to Confession; not many people were attending church activities. I go home and cry."
But then, she said her prayers were answered with the solution to all that ailed her parish.
"I go back to Father Dan and tell him I have the answer — Adoration," she said.
Father Lacroix offered her the use of a little room in the church basement, an exit hall to the elevator, but he had no funds to spare.
Shortly after, Cardoza received a phone call from a neighbor who had a package for her. It contained step-by-step instructions on how to start Adoration in your church.
"Her uncle had mailed it to her 10 years prior," said Cardoza. "She had kept it until she found out about me."
The next problem was that they needed kneelers, which cost about $500 each.
She received a call from another friend, who had started up a conversation with a woman wearing a Divine Mercy pin at Dunkin Donuts. When her friend mentioned that her church needed kneelers, the lady gave her a number to call.
"I called the number, and the Franciscans Sisters of the Immaculate in Fairhaven told me to pick up four kneelers that night," Cardoza said.
Now, all they needed were adorers.
Cardoza spoke to the parishioners at all the Masses that weekend. She needed adorers to serve one-hour increments from Friday at 9:30 a.m. through Saturday at 3 p.m.
"Personally, I think Adoration is the best kept secret," she told them. "I give Him all my problems; He gives me answers. I give Him all my fears; He gives me peace beyond any human understanding. I give Him my tears; He gives me joy. If you're looking for a place to refuel with God's graces to get through another hectic week, then Adoration is the place to be."
Fifty people signed up.
In 2008, Lacroix was assigned to a parish on Cape Cod, and the Rev. Monsignor Gerard P. O'Connor became pastor of St. Francis Xavier's.
"Monsignor looked at me and said, 'Adoration in an exit hall? Put Jesus in the church,'" recalled Cardoza. "He loves Jesus with his whole heart and soul, and he loves his people. He puts Eucharist first and makes it the center, which brought the people back. As soon as he put Jesus in the church, Adoration exploded."
'I'm Sorry That I Don't Really Love You'
Parishioner Susan Charbonneau knew something was missing in her life. She had been divorced for 10 years and was often distracted when she prayed at home.
Her friend asked her to cover her Friday Adoration hour at 5 p.m.
Charbonneau's first prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was "I don't love you. I'm sorry that I don't really love you."
Growing up in a strict Portuguese Catholic family, Charbonneau attended Mass every Sunday, observed all the religious holidays, and the family prayed the Rosary together every night.
"I was dragged to Confession regularly, but I never had a personal relationship with Jesus," she said. "I knew of Him, I knew about Him, but I didn't know Him. I didn't love Him because you can't love someone you don't know."
Sitting in the last pew in the church, she said she was bored out of her mind and spent most of the time looking at her watch.
Her second visit to Adoration was a few weeks later, and it was much the same.
"I didn't pray," she said.
A couple of weeks later Cardoza asked her to become an adorer. Caught off guard, she reluctantly agreed.
Then came the Saturday morning at an especially low point in her life that she found herself kneeling and looking at the Blessed Sacrament. She also eventually made it to Confession, which she said was an extremely important part of her journey.
"Adoration has improved every aspect of my life, one of which is that my marriage has been restored," said Charbonneau. "I'm no longer in a state of constant worry about situations I have no control over. I don't know what the future holds, but I find great comfort in knowing the One who does."
'I Felt the Holy Spirit, Like a Wind'
Forty years ago Stephen Watts returned from the Vietnam War and married his wife Jeannine at St. Francis Xavier Church. A non-practicing Methodist who had never been baptized, he made a promise to God that he would raise his children in the Catholic faith. Year after year, his family went to church without him.
After 21 years working for the electric company, Watts retired.
"My kids had grown up and moved out, and me and my wife were drifting apart," he said.
One Sunday he asked his wife to bring home a bulletin from church, and he noticed the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program. Intrigued, he signed up for classes.
"I was a sponge," he said, absorbing as much information as he could. With the guidance of Lacroix, who was pastor at the time, Watts made the decision to become a Catholic.
On the day he received all his sacraments — Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation — Watts said that he experienced a miracle.
"As I bent over the font to be baptized, I felt the Holy Spirit, like a wind, rush over my back and neck and across the water," he said. "When I looked down at the water in the font, I saw the water ripple. I not only felt but heard the Holy Spirit, who sounded like a breath in my ear."
Watts is now the captain of Tuesday Adoration.
"I do see a difference," he said of his relationship with God after spending time in Adoration. "I believe I was wavering in some of my beliefs, but now I can focus more clearly. This one hour is really not enough time. So I try and make it my best hour spent with Him."
'Hanging on to Years of Compounding Sins'
Parishioner Tony Pimentel had been serving as an adorer for five months, but when he sat in front of the Blessed Sacrament every week, a guilty conscience plagued him. He had not been to Confession in 26 years.
"I knew that despite basically being a good person, I was hanging on to years of compounding sins and making new ones all the time," he said.
Pimentel was raised in a Catholic family and had attended Catholic school.
"I believe in God and Jesus, and I went to Mass; but I had a superficial faith."
He said that he was frightened to go to Confession because of the judgment of the priest.
When Pimentel finally entered the confessional, he said he expected admonishment, but instead the priest began with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for bringing him back home.
Pimentel had brought a document with him that he downloaded from the Internet entitled "Steps to Making a Good Confession".
They spent 30 minutes together.
"When my Confession was over, I exhaled an exhale I had not felt for as long as I could remember," he said. "I felt as light as a feather, as though all those sins I had been holding on to for all of those years had been removed in one fell swoop. I thought I would be excommunicated from the Church. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Hadn't I been listening? I mean, Jesus' whole ministry was centered on the forgiveness of sins."
This article first appeared in the New Bedford Standard Times and is used with the writer's permission.