Father Tom Donohoe steers St. Irene through upcoming changes

by Barbara Whitlock

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Father Tom Donohoe celebrates Mass. (Courtesy photo)

Father Thomas P. Donohoe, who has served as pastor of St. Irene Catholic Church for the past 28 years, is the oldest working priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, having recently celebrated the 65th anniversary of his ordination. As he approaches his 90th birthday, Father Tom plans to stay at the helm as he guides the church through a shift in organization with a planned 2018 collaborative with Concord’s Holy Family—a plan that leaves many worried about retaining St. Irene’s distinct identity and service to the community.

When Father Tom became pastor of St. Irene in 1988, he guided the church through a $2 million building project that shifted the site from a small white building near the post office to its current campus on East Street in 1997. The building project was completed in nine months, and the church community paid off the entire mortgage within nine years. During Donohoe’s tenure, the parish community has also grown from less than 100 families in the late 1980s to 800 families today, many from neighboring Westford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and even Littleton and Groton. 

Donohoe measures the vibrancy of the parish by the number of children and families involved, who fill the ranks of the Sunday school, and whose joyful noises fill the church at each of its three weekend masses. Father Tom relishes the monthly Children’s Mass where he gathers young children in the center aisle during the homily to speak directly to them “with stories that grab their attention,” he said. 

He also enjoys marriage prep. He said that he “tries to meet people where they are, be flexible, and assure them that getting married is the most exciting experience of their life.” He still performs all the weddings and most of the baptisms at St. Irene. When Cardinal Sean O’Malley visited the parish, the Cardinal noted that “we have a lot of families and young children,” Donohoe said.

He added that religious communities are even more vital to raising young people because the public schools have shifted away from teaching morality. He said: “We all need to think about God, prayer and morality, and you don’t get that anywhere else but in a faith community, no matter what your faith community.” “Unfortunately,” he added, “there has been a general decline in families coming to church because of the busyness in people’s lives.” 

Donohoe also measures St. Irene’s success through its service to the Carlisle community and the broader network of families served by the church. The church supports families with meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, provides Christmas gifts to needy families, does outreach to soldiers and provides support to Lazarus House. In addition, the church has a Caring Network and Social Justice outreach committees to support families in need, the elderly and shut-ins and to help immigrant families in transition. 

St. Irene also makes its roomy parish hall available to Carlisle organizations who need a larger gathering space outside of the school campus, including the Council on Aging. Donohoe reiterated: “We’re always happy to share our space with the community.”

The movement from St. Irene’s independent parish model to a collaborative model planned for 2018 with Holy Family parish in Concord raises ripples of concern for Father Tom. The movement toward collaboratives has been triggered by a shortage of priests, and in some communities by declining enrollment and collections. St. Irene is financially strong, but the Catholic Church has struggled for decades with declining vocations to the priesthood. However, the trend is upward, and Donohoe hopes that as more priests become available, St. Irene’s can return to an independent parish in the future.

At stake is “the identity of St. Irene,” said Donohoe. “It’s important that we keep a staff in Carlisle to serve the community here and keep the church open to parishioners,” he added. “St. Irene has a small part time staff whereas Holy Family supports an $800,000 staff,” he added. People fear that this larger Concord church could swallow the identity of St. Irene’s “country church,” he said. In his meetings to plan for this shift to a collaborative model, Donohoe persistently voices that “each parish is still a separate parish with its own identity.” He said: “The new pastor who leads the future collaborative must recognize that he is dealing with two separate communities.” 

Donohoe’s commitment to family and community is rooted deeply in his past and in the patterns of his life as a priest. He grew up in Lowell, and he took the post at St. Irene in order to be close to his family there and to support his mother during her later years. Donohoe’s family connection between Lowell and Carlisle began in his youth during the 1930s. His father, who was a day laborer and out of work for two years during the Great Depression, finally landed a job working on a farm in Carlisle. “He walked five miles to Carlisle and back every day, returning at 9 p.m.—for $5 a week.” Donohoe added: “There was no Social Security or Unemployment in those days.” 

Father Tom has made the journey back and forth between Carlisle to Lowell weekly over the past 28 years. “I’ve always been close to my family, and still have my family place in the Highlands [neighborhood of Lowell]. I’ve always kept that place, and I go there every week to get a break on my day off.” He added with a chuckle: “One day a week I get away to hear the reassuring sounds of sirens at 3 a.m. That’s my place to get away.”

When the Boston priest scandals made news a few years back, Donohoe said “I was shocked, and so were the brother priests of my generation.” Over time, he realized that “what happened to those priests who got into problems was that they didn’t stay connected to their families.” He added: “It’s important to keep your family close. They are a source of affection and care that everyone needs.”

Donohoe considers his parish family at St. Irene an extension of that close family network that priests need. And that’s why he has no plans for retirement. He said, “Priests didn’t used to retire. They stayed with the parish, lived with a younger brother priest who took over more duties over time.” But Donohoe hasn’t reduced his workload, even though his Parochial Vicar Father Romain Ruringirwa “tries to get me to slow down sometimes,” Donohoe said.

While the Archdiocese of Boston has a mandatory retirement age of 75 for priests, Donohoe applies for an extension each year, a procedure that involves an interview with the bishop. St. Irene parishioner Flemming Christensen said: “I find Father Tom’s perspective refreshing. He doesn’t consider the priesthood a job. In his mind, it’s a calling, not something you retire from. We’re lucky to have him. He is devoted to his flock. That point alone speaks volumes about the man, and it’s reflected in the strong volunteering spirit in the parish.”

Editor’s note: Barbara Whitlock is a freelance writer and teacher at the Montrose School in Medfield, MA. She is a member of St. Irene parish.