Feeding the Multitudes


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...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.