Your eyes and ears tell you that Scenes from a Parish is a documentary. So does a source that might be more reliable: PBS. Had it not been so, you might swear that this study of an urban Catholic congregation was a novel: with its absorbing and wrenching multiple storylines knit into an eloquently disturbing civic vision, James Rutenbeck’s film—airing on the PBS series Independent Lens on December 29 (check local listings)—has a scope that’s positively Zola-esque.

Four years in the making, Scenes from a Parish focuses on the conflicted community of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Once a prosperous mill town, Lawrence is now plagued by poverty. The area’s ethnic landscape has been changing too: formerly a bastion of native Anglophones, St. Patrick’s now attracts many immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The charismatic young priest at the church’s helm, Fr. Paul O’Brien, is determined to face up to the demographic changes, launching the Cor Unum Meal Center for needy Lawrence residents and offering services in Spanish as well as English.

The seemingly unflappable Harvard alum—seen, in an early shot, striding down the sidewalk in sunglasses, looking extremely cool—has his work cut out for him. In a couple of remarkably candid moments, Rutenbeck captures parishioners voicing resentment about the new initiatives. “If the Mass is done in Spanish and English…I do not get anything out of [it],” says a defiant elderly woman, whom we see participating in an enormous game of bingo. “They can get food stamps.…They give the kids breakfast and dinner at school,” gripes one lady on the Christian Outreach Committee, skeptical that Lawrence needs a meal center.

Such scenes stand in poignant juxtaposition to other sequences in the film: glimpses of beautiful stained glass; footage of ethnically diverse worshipers at Ash Wednesday and Christmas services; a close-up on Rosaura Vásquez, who hails from the Dominican Republic, singing “Love Came Down at Christmas” after surmounting qualms about joining an Anglo choir; a shot of Fr. O’Brien telling his parishioners, “We have many different backgrounds and languages in this parish, but we truly are one in our faith in Christ.” Rutenbeck makes sure that the religious context never disappears from the film—whose genesis, he says in an interview posted on the PBS Web site, dates back to a spiritual epiphany that woke him in the middle of the night ten years ago.

But Scenes from a Parish is also likely to resonate with viewers who are more interested in the state of the country, and of human nature, than the state of the church. This documentary does air, after all, amid America’s ongoing angst about immigration and inclusiveness—witness the birther movement, or Lou Dobbs, or the “You lie!” that Rep. Joe Wilson screamed at President Barack Obama in September, while the president was denying that health-care reform would benefit illegal immigrants.

Yet ethnic tensions aren’t the only ones that surface in Scenes from a Parish: other kinds of otherness unnerve Lawrence’s residents. One storyline focuses on a female congregant who stops attending St. Patrick’s after marrying a woman. Another follows Bobby McCord, a young man who appears to be coping with a mental handicap, and who speaks in an unintelligible squawk. At a family birthday party, his sister Sarah speaks of the hostility Bobby has sometimes evoked from passersby. Lest the viewer of Rutenbeck’s film feel superior to such bias, the scene concludes with a painfully long shot of Bobby talking—as the moment drags on, you can’t help recognizing your own discomfort over his disability.

Scenes from a Parish
does contain upbeat anecdotes. After raising money for Cor Unum with an ingenious prejudice-spoofing T-shirt business (check out, Fr. O’Brien hosts a grand opening, attended by his college classmate Conan O’Brien. The meal center goes on to serve over a hundred thousand dinners its first year.

And the documentary shows St. Patrick’s parishioners bent on reaching out to other people, no matter how difficult that may be. One moving subplot centers on outreach volunteer Peggy Oliveto’s relationship with Theresa Santell, a single mother who used to be the head of a women’s gang, and who wears studs in her eyebrow and lower lip. After helping Theresa with her security deposit, the seemingly straitlaced Peggy learns that the former drug addict has lied about her housing situation and relapsed into bad habits. In an unsettling interview, Theresa describes how she physically assaulted people at a local thrift store (broken glass is involved). Peggy refuses to give up on her.

There’s no touchy-feely ending to Theresa’s story. Instead, Rutenbeck offers a more stirring conclusion, which underscores the broader significance of the stories he unearthed in Lawrence. In a voiceover just before the film’s end credits—while the camera lingers on factory walls and kids hanging out on gritty urban streets—Fr. O’Brien affirms, “What each individual is seeing, is thinking, and is doing, at any given moment, is critically important, because God is potentially working everywhere. God is speaking all the time, often through the least likely people.”


Related: Celia Wren reviews the Independent Lens film The Calling

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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