Boston Friars Find Hope After Weeks of Snowstorms

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines


Thomas Conway sprinkles salt on the sidewalks outside St. Anthony Shrine on Ash Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Brian Cullinane)

BOSTON — Frequent snowstorms have disrupted Boston’s citizens and the St. Anthony Shrine community throughout the past month, but the coming of Lent has given the friars hope — and a glimpse of the sun.

“Today, the sun finally burst through and tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, we are hoping for people to come to the Shrine,” said Eric Carpine, OFM, on Tuesday, just two days after the most recent storm. “We are filled with hope. If we can get the crowds we expect, it’ll help boost the spirits of the friars and the people of the Shrine.”

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a busy day at the church on Arch Street. The shrine team distributes ashes for 12 hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., said Brian Cullinane, OFM. Last year, roughly 14,000 people came for ashes.

For four weeks, the people of Boston have coped with frequent snowstorms and unusually low temperatures. Since mid-January, the snow has made walking, driving and parking often impossible. Media reports calling this season’s weather “historic and “biblical” say that 90.2 inches of snow have fallen in Boston since Jan. 23, as of Feb. 16.

The most recent blizzard brought snow between Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. “Because of the wind, it looked like a tornado hit the neighborhood,” said Eric, who was scheduled to preach during the Ash Wednesday Masses.

“It is clear that New England and Boston have been the ‘talk of the world’ this week,” said John Maganzini, OFM, on Feb. 11. “I say ‘world’ because I received emails from contacts in Italy and Ireland. They had heard about the ‘terrible storms’ and were wondering how we were surviving the blizzard.”

St. Anthony Shrine

Thomas Donovan lights candles in an empty St. Anthony Shrine ten minutes before the 12:30 p.m. Mass on Feb. 15. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Horan)

Challenges and Disruptions
The frequent snowstorms have been “quite an experience,” according to Jackie Stewart, the Shrine’s director of evangelization. “The roads are icy. The transit system is not working well. There’s no place to put the snow. Because of the transit problems, many people earning low wages are not able to get to their jobs, which means they are losing pay because they are not able to work.”

The snow’s impact on the patrons of the Shrine, where 19 outreach ministries are offered, has been significant. Mass attendance has gone down, and the friars have had to revise their work and personal schedules.

“The winter’s weather has been especially hard on older friars who need to go to doctor appointments and find transportation is difficult or not available,” said Eric.

On Sunday, Feb. 15, Daniel Horan, OFM, took a photo of Thomas Donovan, OFM, lighting candles in front of empty pews in the upper church ten minutes before the 12:30 p.m. Mass was to begin. The total number of people who came to the Shrine’s seven Masses that day was only 75, said Eric, who was scheduled to preach at the Masses. On a normal Sunday, roughly 3,500 people are usually in attendance.

Fewer people at weekend Masses has a direct impact on the finances of the nearly 70-year-old ministry center. “The Sunday collection is affected because the Shrine does not use an envelope system, since it is not a parish,” explained Brian.

The outreach programs of the Shrine, in Downtown Crossing, have been affected, as have the lives of the people they serve.

The clients of the Franciscan Food Center, which is open two days a week for people to select the food they need, have had a difficult time coming to the Shrine to pick up their food. “We noticed that some of our elderly regulars did not come, probably because they walk to the Shrine and couldn’t navigate the snowy streets,” said Mary Ann Ponti, director.

However, Ponti is pleased that “because of our dedicated volunteers, the center was able to stay open during every bad weather day. So many people depend on us.”

No one attended a program for seniors scheduled for Feb. 11, though the friars prepared for attendees, according to Brian.

Despite the weather, some ministry programs have gone on as planned. The Shrine’s website announced on Feb. 12, “Despite the snowy conditions, our 20s/30s Young Adults Group had a terrific social after the 5:30 p.m. Mass this past Sunday.”

Schedule changes have been posted on the Shrine’s website and social media accounts. Thomas Conway, OFM, director of the Shrine, and other friars have also communicated information on their personal Facebook pages.


Gregory Day shovels snow outside the Shrine. (Photo courtesy of Brian Cullinane)

Fraternity Amidst Wintery Chaos
This year’s weather in Massachusetts has been much different than that of most winters, said Eric, a native of Boston. “I was here during the grand blizzard of 1978, and that was a one-time storm that lasted a few days. This year, we’ve been having two storms a week for the past four weeks.”

James Sabak, OFM, an instructor at Providence College in Rhode Island, said, the weather is “unusual, not only by way of the amount of snow, but in the prevailing weather patterns that have continued for the past few years. This is my third winter in New England, and it is not exactly as I remember New England winters,” said the friar, whose parents have lived in Connecticut since 1979.

James said he wonders whether this is a sign of global climate change. “We need to move away from ideas of global warming, if this means a rise in overall temperatures alone — which was probably an incorrect assessment of the situation to begin with — and begin to think about climate change. I am wondering, in some way, if these patterns continue, will schools in the northeast or even in the northern part of the nation have to reevaluate when to begin a spring semester. January may no longer be a feasible or sensible time to start after winter break.”

Though most of the Shrine residents feel that “enough is enough,” according to Eric, they have been faring fairly well through the storms. “We have each other. We have a fireplace and we have food on our table.”

Snow days tend to draw people together, said Brian. “It’s a very different atmosphere in the friary when it snows. Since they are less busy, friars are together more. It’s very fraternal.”

“As a community, we were safe during the storms,” said John, who was born and raised in Somerville, Mass., less than five miles from Boston. “Each day we had our regular prayer schedule and had a Mass together at 11 a.m. All the employees were off, so we took care of serving the meals and enjoying some quiet time and time together. I fear there is more snow to come, according to the latest weather report. As Eric said in his opening before our community Mass, ‘Let’s pray that Mother Nature realizes she has made her point!’”

“This has definitely been the winter of our discontent,” said Eric, with a smile.

An assortment of photos of Boston neighborhoods published by Newsday on Feb. 16 showed the impact of the snow on the city.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.