People Get Ready: A book discussion with Susan Bigelow Reynolds

Author: Catherine R. Osborne

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Susan Bigelow Reynolds is assistant professor of Catholic Studies in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is a Catholic theologian and ethnographer whose research examines the intersection of ecclesiology and lived Catholicism in contexts of diversity, marginality, and suffering. Last summer, Catherine Osborne corresponded with Reynolds about her recent book, People Get Ready: Ritual, Solidarity, and Lived Ecclesiology in Catholic Roxbury (Fordham, 2023), a study of St. Mary of the Angels, a tiny underground Catholic parish in Boston’s Egleston Square.

Catherine Osborne: This is one of the best pieces of contextual theology I’ve ever read, in part because you so expertly balance a variety of written theological sources with ethnographic work and what I (half-jokingly, but only half) call “real history”—by which I mostly mean, you did archival research! Way too many times, I see theologians making a “historical turn” that skims really lightly over sometimes hundreds of years in a paragraph, without getting engaged in the debates historians are having about the issues they want to consider. As a theologian, what do you think archival work gave you that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do? What do you value about, say, going to the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA) or the American Academy of Religion (AAR)?

Susan Bigelow Reynolds: First of all, thank you. I’m gratified to hear a historian affirming the historical work that went into the book. The project began as an ethnography, which meant that in the beginning, I primarily relied on interviews and oral histories and all of the participant-observation I had done during and after the year I lived in the St. Mary of the Angels parish house. But there was a crucial part of the story missing.

In order to become good theology, the project first had to become good history. The most striking thing about St. Mary’s is its tradition of lay leadership and community activism. But what was the parish like prior to Vatican II? Was this spirit of lay agency a product of the Council, or did it have deeper roots? What did the chancery think of these headstrong parishioners? How did St. Mary’s interact with the civil rights movement? Why was such a small parish established in the first place? Egleston Square was redlined in the 1930s. What did that mean for the church? How did it survive when almost every other Roxbury parish was closed or merged? Before I could venture any theological analysis of local belonging or community or church or place or difference—all concepts that often get gauzy treatment in theological texts—I needed answers to questions like these. How do you talk about the local without talking about redlining and segregation? How do you talk about communion without talking about race and culture? You can’t.

Through ACHA, AAR, the Cushwa Center, and even social media, relationships I’ve formed with colleagues working in Catholic history have helped to make me a better, more careful, more fearless scholar. I hope that for historians and theologians alike, People Get Ready suggests the necessity—and the real joy—of interdisciplinary collaboration. Meanwhile, Thomas Lester, the head archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston, and his team of assistants could not have been more helpful. He pointed me in directions I would never have known to look but that became central to the book. The story of the Roxbury Apostolate in chapter three—Cardinal (Richard) Cushing’s attempt to channel the spirit of Vatican II into an inner-city solidarity program—is just one example. Later in the same chapter, I trace the radical early years of the St. Mary’s Parish Pastoral Council, which is another piece of the story that caught me completely by surprise.

I also learned what to do when formal archives can’t help you. I was curious about what was going on behind the scenes in 2004 when St. Mary’s was targeted for closure, along with about 80 other Boston parishes. Those records were still sealed. As luck would have it, a longtime lay leader at St. Mary’s, Maria Quiroga, had meticulously kept hundreds of documents from the parish’s anti-closure protest—everything from meeting notes to newspaper articles to printed emails to letter drafts. This “grassroots archive” offered an incredibly detailed insider perspective on the parish’s fight for survival.

CO: The book really focuses on the parish’s laity and on their relationships with the pastors over the years, whether these relations were better or worse. Religious sisters also play a significant role, but they felt a little submerged in the narrative, comparatively. So I wondered if you could expand on that a little here. What’s your sense of how the laypeople relate(d) to the sisters, as compared to the priests? Is there any difference between how laywomen and laymen partner(ed) with the sisters? And how did you as a writer struggle to balance all the competing priorities of the narrative?

SBR: For all of the emphasis on lay leadership, people at St. Mary’s still define eras in the parish’s history by the priests who served there at the time. There were the “Jack Roussin Years,” the “Jack Fagan Years,” the “Dave Gill Years,” and so on. The religious sisters, on the other hand, seemed to operate on a different timeline. Their presence was more enduring and, narratively, more untethered to these “priest eras.” During the key decades in the book—the 1970s through the early 2000s—the priests and sisters worked in close collaboration and, from what I understand, viewed each other as close friends and partners in the work of solidarity with the city. During the height of Roxbury’s gang epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, the woman I call Sister Margaret was a defining figure in the lives of so many teenagers and young people in Egleston Square, especially young men. Even now, if you walk down the street with her, you run into someone she knew as a seventeen-year-old.

Yet there is, of course, a gendered element to all of this work that is exacerbated by the clerical tendency to define a parish by its priest, and this proved complicated for crafting the book’s narrative. While St. Mary’s priests were often in the local news doing public-facing work—dealing with youth gangs, leading community meetings, fighting parish closure—the sisters were doing more relational and formational work: running religious education and youth group, working in homeless outreach, connecting people with resources, doing pastoral care, and so on. One thing I struggled with in writing the book was that several of the religious sisters who played key roles in the social history of Egleston Square and St. Mary’s were also some of my most candid informants, which meant that they are pseudonymized in the book—“Sister Margaret” and “Sister Josephine.” On the other hand, a priest like the late Father Jack Roussin functions in the book as a historical figure. But the end result is that priests have names, while the religious sisters have pseudonyms. I don’t like that, and in retrospect, I would have done it differently.

CO: The chapter on the Stations is a standout, weaving together historical, liturgical, and spatial analysis. It looks at the origins and present of a Good Friday Way of the Cross that winds around the streets of Roxbury, stopping at significant neighborhood spots. There’s some intriguing tension between people who want a “historical re-enactment” (costumes, etc.), a centuries-old tradition in many places, and people who want to do what the parish has done for several decades, which is tie the events of the passion directly to neighborhood happenings and locations. In light of research on your new project, have you rethought anything in the book chapter? Anything you would add or change? Or, conversely, I would be curious to hear how beginning your Stations research with this particular congregation has shaped how you approach other instances.

SBR: The chapter on the Neighborhood Way of the Cross is the oldest piece of the book. The entire project started as a history and ethnography of that particular ritual. It seized my imagination, and it was my first window into the history of Egleston Square.

Ever since my first Good Friday at St. Mary of the Angels in 2012, I’ve been captivated by the question of what it is about the Stations of the Cross—this consummately traditional, medieval ritual—that invites such creative devotion in communities not only on the edges of society, but also on the edges of the Church. And that’s exactly the question at the heart of this next project that you mentioned. I’m currently calling it Ways of the Cross. In researching it, I spent this past Holy Week in the Rio Grande Valley, accompanying a group of Jesuits who minister to migrants on both sides of the border. I used to live in Brownsville, Texas, so I was thrilled to be back. I participated in the Triduum liturgies in the migrant encampment that had grown along the river in Matamoros, Mexico, opposite Brownsville. Most of the migrants there were from Venezuela, as well as Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, southern Mexico, Cuba, and numerous other countries. On Holy Thursday, the Mass concluded with a Eucharistic procession through the camp to the plaza before the Gateway International Bridge. And on Good Friday, the Jesuits and a group of several dozen migrants walked a Via Crucis through the muddy center of the camp to the international bridge. The people carried a towering cross made of scrap wood constructed by a man in the camp. When I was first told about the planned rituals, my first thought was, how prophetic! I imagined these potent Christian symbols—the thurible and its incense, the monstrance, the cross—visually interrupting the militarized border superstructure in ways that would lay bare the death-dealing reality of the hemispheric migration crisis.

Both processions were, indeed, extraordinarily powerful. But once we made our way out of the camp and onto the streets of Matamoros, neither the Eucharistic procession nor the Via Crucis interrupted much of anything at all. The streets were loud and flooded by a recent downpour and crowded with vendors and traffic and police and border guards. It was chaos entering into chaos.

I was reminded of the Passionsspiele in Oberammergau, Germany, which I attended this past September (another stop on the “Stations of the Cross research trail”). Because everyone in the town has the right to participate in the famous, once-a-decade passion play if they so desire, the crowd scenes are enormous. Unlike, say, the passion narrative recited during the Palm Sunday liturgy, the crowd in Oberammergau wasn’t crying “Crucify him!” in dutiful unison. Instead, it was a cacophony. Every interjection by the crowd was mayhem, full of disagreement and confusion. Downstage, kids chased each other and fought over bread and live animals bleated. Jesus’ condemnation felt chaotic, which is probably much closer to the reality of it.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that I had initially viewed rituals like these as prophetic, interruptive public statements. But that’s not really what I saw, at least not primarily. Their power was in the closed eyes and footsteps of the migrants who participated in them. That’s where the center of gravity was—in the hands embracing the cross, in the knees genuflecting onto muddy ground. I guess this probably seems fairly obvious. But when we talk about the political power of liturgy, our desire to tap into its larger, public-theological significance can sometimes obscure the lived experiences—often quieter and more intimate and varied—of participants themselves.

As I reread People Get Ready, I can see that this realization is already evident within the narrative, even if I wasn’t fully conscious of it. When I first started looking at the Roxbury Way of the Cross, I found myself constantly shaking off the urge to decide what the ritual meant. It’s an impossible question to answer. Meant for whom? Meant when? I’m a theologian, and I think that Catholic theology is often burdened by a sense that all questions of meaning have one right answer. To your previous question, I think that’s what keeps us from engaging fully with real histories. So instead, the book focuses on the variety of memories and expectations that participants carried with them into the procession, and it mostly does this through stories. It’s an approach I’m going to be more conscious of in this new project.

CO: I think everyone would like an update on the congregation. The book leaves us in a lot of suspense: will they come back from COVID? So . . . how are things going?

SBR: My most recent visit to St. Mary of the Angels was in April of this year. Both the English and Spanish communities had mostly come back. Sadly, several of the community’s most legendary figures had died since my last visit, including the parish matriarch I call Florence in the book. In many ways, though, it felt like the same old St. Mary’s, full of old faces and new faces gathered together in a basement church.

What stunned me was the level of development that has taken place in and around Egleston Square over the past few years. Everywhere I looked, there was some new condo complex going up in that boxy style that looks so out of place next to Boston’s triple-deckers and old brick buildings. The intersection that St. Mary’s sits at was recently rebuilt into an experimental “busway,” which meant that what little street parking existed near the church has been completely eliminated and the intersection has become more dangerous for pedestrians. Egleston Square was also one of two neighborhoods in the city recently identified for a new “density zoning” pilot program, which allows developers to build higher as long as they promise to earmark a certain number of the units for affordable housing.

Gentrification is a tricky term, but whatever we want to call this kind of development, it doesn’t seem to bode well for the parish’s future. Parishioners fear they’re getting squeezed out. Ironically, this kind of development probably poses a greater threat to the future of St. Mary’s than the neglect of the 1970s or the violence of the 1980s and ’90s or the archdiocesan parish shutdowns of 2004 ever did. St. Mary’s has spent 117 years adapting to changing times, but fundamentally, it’s a poor church for the poor. And when you’re suddenly surrounded by brand new condos, it’s hard to keep being a little basement church.

But this is St. Mary of the Angels, after all. Defying the odds is what this community does. Hope springs eternal.

Catherine Osborne is the author of American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow (University of Chicago Press, 2018). She holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from Fordham University and was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center from 2014–2017.

This interview appears in the fall 2023 issue of the Cushwa Center’s American Catholic Studies Newsletter.