Friday, January 11, 2002
St. Irene's pastor reflects on a half-century in the pulpit
The Reverend Thomas P. Donohoe is clearly a man who likes a good laugh. His hearty chuckle rings out loudly, enthusiastically and often as he reflects on the upcoming 50th anniversary of his ordination, to be celebrated officially on January 13. He laughs as he comments that, at the age of 25, he never imagined that he'd someday celebrate this milestone. He laughs over a parishioner's comment that St. Irene's meteoric rise in membership during his tenure can be attributed as much to the presence of this popular priest as to the sparkling new facilities that opened four years ago. But he laughs hardest when asked about his storied sideline as a stage actor. "That's probably what's kept me from retiring!" he admits about the occasional opportunities he seizes to appear on stage, most notably at St. Irene's annual fall mystery dinners. "It isn't everywhere that I'd get to star in a show!"
Numerous changes and advances mark Father Donohoe's 13-year tenure as pastor in Carlisle. The most obvious one is the construction of the new St. Irene facility on East Street, built in 1997 to replace the previous structure on Bedford Road. "When I arrived here, we had a small building with almost no function space and a lot of limitations," he reminisces. "After a celebration such as a first Communion, we'd have coffee on the lawn, weather permitting. Brides were afraid to use the bathrooms for fear that the rust in the water would stain their dresses."
Along with the new facilities, St. Irene's programs for young people are one of the facets of church life in which Father Donohoe takes the most pride. "We're in the process of establishing a new Confirmation program. Once that's in place, we want to focus on ways to keep young people engaged in church life past the time of their Confirmation," he says. "We're working on a program for high school students that will challenge their faith: not just teach them what they should believe but encourage them to question it, so that faith becomes something that they accept within their own lives and not just what they've been taught. We're improving church life at the junior high level as well by introducing events like socials, retreats, harbor cruises and sleigh rides. At that age, it's good for young people to have something at church that goes beyond traditional religious education."
Born and raised in Lowell, Father Donohoe served parishes in Cambridge, Medford, Malden, Hyde Park, Hudson and Brookline before arriving in Carlisle. Asked what makes St. Irene unique among the parishes he's served, he states that the first thing to come to mind is its warmly welcoming atmosphere. "All churches are talking right now about how to be more welcoming," he says. "We all agree it's important, but some churches have trouble doing more than talking about it. At St. Irene, the congregation really is welcoming. People arrive here and feel at home." Among the 850 registered families up from about 300 when Father Donohoe arrived in 1988 who do call St. Irene their religious home are residents of Billerica, Chelmsford, Westford, Acton and Bedford as well as Carlisle. He also points to the impressive charitable efforts of his parish, which include raising over $9,000 this past holiday season for their student priest to give to his home village in Africa. Additionally, the church's youth have contributed their efforts to programs such as Habitat for Humanity.
His devoted parishioners speak about Father Donohoe with nothing less than delighted admiration. "We're so happy to be honoring him on the occasion of his 50
Long-time Carlisle resident and parishioner Ed Sonn of Woodland Road identifies Father Donohoe's flexible approach as the key aspect to the many recent improvements the church has seen. Referring to the days when the new facility was still in the planning stages, he observes that "many of Father Donohoe's colleagues thought the new church would mean a lot of debt and a lot of worry, but he went along with it, and the parish has grown enormously as a result. Additionally, the music ministry has grown quite a bit under his aegis, as has the Sunday school program." Although Father Donohoe avoids talking about his own talents and accomplishments, parishioners are eager to fill in the details: "He loves music, Scrabble and golf. He always enjoys a good party, and never misses a wedding reception if he's officiated at the wedding." Sonn, who serves as the chairman of the St. Irene Finance Council, adds as an afterthought, "And he can count money faster than I can."
Asked what interesting challenges lie ahead, the popular and enthusiastic pastor says "I'd really like to see us pay off our mortgage and I definitely want to see our youth ministry program continue to grow." Of course, many parishioners suspect the biggest event on Father Donohoe's calendar is the church's annual mystery theater. His recent appearance as Tonto has become church legend and will by all accounts be difficult to surpass. "It's a big event for the church. Tickets sell out at least a week in advance," he says with pleasure, and then reflects more soberly on the need for traditions like this. "It's important that the parish enjoy good times together. We share a lot of difficult times, and this is something that brings people together in a very happy way."
Father Donohoe's 50th anniversary will be formally celebrated at a concelebrated Mass on Sunday, January 13 followed by a reception at the Westford Regency.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito