As St. Paul reminds us, each of us have gifts given to us by God.
I arrived on Dec. 12, 2012 at Immaculate Conception Parish in Holyoke, MA, to give a hand. I came as an “interim priest”, before the La Salette Missionaries return this parish to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Springfield, MA. We have served here for a full 100 years.
I was greeted by the Pastor of ten years, Fr. Jim Aherne, M.S., with a welcoming hand and a caveat: "I am not an administrator.” It seemed to be the answer to many of my questions. True as that might be, what he didn't tell me and I soon discovered, he is a true leader.
Leading His People
Fr. Jim has guided this inner city, multiethnic community through a time of great change and he has met that challenge very well. As a pastor from that diocese said to me recently, "Jim will be missed. He knew how to surround himself with good people and form a welcoming and inclusive community".
It was easy to sense from others in the diocese including its Bishop, Timothy Anthony McDonnell, that Fr. Jim’s ministry is much appreciated. Jim has managed to form a sense of one community here at Immaculate Conception Parish in the midst of diversity. There is one parish council with new immigrants as well as people born and brought up here. For the first time, the president of the parish council is Hispanic. The secretary is of French Canadian descent, the initial founders of this parish.
It was no surprise to Fr. Jim that the beautiful church that was built in1925 was in bad repair and it eventually had to be torn down. It was a heart-breaking event for many but Jim guided the parishioners through it, maintaining hope as the Diocese committed itself to building a much smaller but attractive church in what is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the area.
Reaching Out to the Needy
Meantime Jim reached out beyond the parish to the Haitian immigrants, learning Creole on his own. He made visits to different prisons in the area and opened up the rectory once a month to a Community Accountability Program for people on probation. He also opened up the first floor and part of the basement of the rectory to Homework House, an after-school program run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. He was often called upon to translate for immigrants and even assisted at a surgery for one person, not to mention facilitating legal work for those who needed it.
The Bishop asked him to receive several seminarians from the diocese each summer. Jim organized the program which was designed to help future priests appreciate the reality of newly arrived immigrants in this very diverse diocese. He has been a mentor to some of these men and it is wonderful to see the relationship they have with him.
Along with very many other dimensions of any parish, Fr. Jim showed a great respect for the elderly and sick shut-ins. Many of them grew up in this parish which was begun in 1905 to respond to the needs of French Canadian immigrants attracted to Holyoke because of the thriving mill industry at the time. One such woman said to me recently, "Fr. Jim was always there for me. When my son was dying, when I was in the hospital, and now that I can't get out to go to church, he has always been there for me".
There is much more that could be said and probably will be said at the well-deserved party being given in Fr. Jim's Aherne’s honor on March 2, 2013. And even though I concur that he is not an administrator, I just wanted to say, before I hand over the keys to the new diocesan pastor, Fr. Jim Aherne has been very much a leader and is truly appreciated by those many people whose lives he has touched in his ministry here in Holyoke, Massachusetts.