TOWNSEND -- It is all about community. Parishioners and friends gathered to eat a meatless Italian meal in honor of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Italy.
The congregation at St. John the Evangelist in Townsend had plenty to celebrate at the meal hosted and prepared by the Knights of Columbus on March 23.
It was a gathering of old friends.
Many are close at hand and active day to day in the parish. Hirk and Louise Fortin shared their experiences in maintaining a 56-year-long marriage with a youth retreat earlier in the year.
A video of the pastor, the Rev. Jeremy St. Martin, was circulating. It turns out he is quite a skier. He was shown skiing backwards and forwards down the slope.
Even the parishioners come from communities other than Townsend, drawn by the people and atmosphere.
"Here you want to go to church. It's the people too," Denis Schaefer, from Brookline, N.H., said. She and her husband Paul pick up their neighbor Jean Schultz for mass.
Schultz likes her church. "This is for me," she said.
It was a gathering of new friends, too.
A new pope, Francis, was elected earlier in March. His picture is already on the wall.
The Knights of Columbus at the parish are sponsoring a seminarian; Chris Lowe, a second year student at the Blessed John XXIII Seminary, was on-hand for the dinner. Lowe, a widower, lived in Ayer before joining the seminary in Weston.
The congregation continues to grow. Overall attendance at the three weekend masses has averaged 750 over the last few weeks, St. Martin said. Five new adults will join the church this Easter.
Extensive changes on the property are also underway. The parish hall burned in December 2011, days before St. Martin arrived. The church is almost ready to send the bids out to construct a building with a state-of-the-art sprinkler and septic system and good handicap access.
Some of the cost will be covered by insurance on the old building, some from savings, some from a loan and some from the congregation. St. Martin does not want to create a huge debt or ask people for money they cannot afford. "We tried to make the building as frugal as possible," he said.
Donors have made other changes possible. A stained glass window from Father Mealey Hall was moved to the church in April 2011. A woman recreated the window in paint, a body shop protected it with clear coat and it was installed above the door in the hall on School Street where the old window was once.
The church will also be installing a new bell. The existing bell does not sound very good. "The one we have is a real clanger," St. Martin said. The new bell was donated in memory of a young mother who died.
St John's is a young parish, St. Martin said. A youth group is planning on attending the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this summer. They are forming the types of bonds the older members of the parish value.
The travelers have raised almost all of the $56,000 needed to make the trip and formed some strong connections along the way. "Some of my best friends are people I met in the group," Shannon Murphy, 15, from Townsend said.