Nuns Celebrate Gift, Stick with Church

By Kathy McCabe
Boston Globe [Swampscott MA]
May 18, 2003

ith their future as directors of religious education at St. John the Evangelist in Swampscott in jeopardy, and rumors swirling that their contract would not be renewed because they supported church reform in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal, Sister Michelle Sherliza and Sister Christine McManus prayed daily to their beloved friends, Jane and Margaret Bunting, for strength and guidance.

They got that, and much more.

In her will filed last month, Margaret B. Bunting left her family fortune, estimated at $700,000 to $800,000 after taxes, to the religious education program at St. John's, and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Ky., the Catholic religious order Sister Sherliza and Sister McManus joined more than 30 years ago.

"I started to cry," Sister Sherliza said upon learning of the gift. "This is a gift from two wonderful parishioners. It will ensure that our religious education program will continue ... It's just so wonderful."

The gift also may have saved the jobs of the two beloved nuns - and stopped a parish revolt at St. John's. The nuns and the Rev. Thomas Sheehy, pastor of St. John's for 11 years, were in a contract battle over the last several months. At one point, it looked like Sister Sherliza and Sister McManus would leave St. John's, according to parishioners who chose to remain anonymous, citing the nuns' pleas for privacy. The sisters have been with the church for 30 years.

But last week, after a meeting coordinated by Monsignor Paul Garrity of St. Mary's Church in Lynn, Sheehy announced that the sisters would remain as directors of religious education at St. John's, whose program is one of the largest and most successful on the North Shore.

"We are delighted to announce that Sister Christine and Sister Michelle will continue their ministry as directors of religious education in St. John's parish," Sheehy announced at Masses last weekend. The news was greeted with sustained applause at the 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday.

Sheehy also announced a parish unity service, scheduled for June 2, 7:30 p.m., to bring St. John's together. In an interview, Sheehy declined to discuss the contract negotiations with the sisters.

Asked if the dispute had anything to do with the sisters' involvement with Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization working to reform the church, he said, "No, it did not." But he also acknowledged that the past few months have been hard on the families of St. John's.

"There was a lot of discussion in the parish," he said. "We now want to bring people together and pray for healing."

Sister Sherliza and Sister McManus also would not discuss their contract dispute. The two are now busy planning the unity service, which will be held at the church.

"It's such a sensitive issue," Sister Sherliza said. "What we'd like to do is move on, together as a staff, to serve the parish. That's why we're holding the unity service."

For some, moving on may be hard. It's difficult for some not to think that the sisters, whose good deeds are well known in town, weren't singled out for attending at least one meeting of Voice of the Faithful. The lay organization is not endorsed by the Archdiocese of Boston.

At St. John's, the nuns helped start "Response to the Crisis in the Church," a group that also includes members from neighboring Star of the Sea Church in Marblehead and St. Thomas Aquinas in Nahant.

"Everything was fine between them and the pastor, until they started attending Voice of the Faithful," said Maryanne Speranza Hartmann, 35, a lifelong parishioner.

Garrity, in his role as parochial vicar for the Lynn area, said he received letters from parishioners worried that the nuns were being singled out for supporting Voice of the Faithful.

"Unfortunately, I think some people thought this was basically retribution for their [the nuns] being outspoken," Garrity said. "I got some letters about that, but I can honestly say that it was never an issue for either [Sheehy] or them ... I can't find anybody, including Father Sheehy, who wanted them to leave. They've done a wonderful job there. He's done a great job as pastor."

Garrity characterized the dispute as an "internal family disagreement," dating back three years. At that time, the nuns thought they had secured a verbal promise from Sheehy that when their contract expires this August, their role at the church would change. They would hand off religious education duties to lay people, and become pastoral associates. Pastoral associates provide spiritual counseling and other essential faith services, giving the nuns a broader role at the parish.

According to Garrity, Sheehy never recalled making the promise and said he needed the sisters to continue running religious education. Like other parishes, St. John's has had a drop in donations from parishioners in the 18 months since the priest sex abuse scandal erupted, Garrity said.

"He was not going to offer them contracts as pastoral associates," Garrity said. "I think finances at the parish are tight. A lot of places have suffered as a result of the [abuse crisis]. Swampscott may be a wealthy town, but it isn't reflected in the financial statement of the parish."

Garrity, who could not cite details of St. John's finances, said the Buntings' gift was not a factor in keeping the sisters in Swampscott.

"To my knowledge, there's been no formal notification to the parish, only verbally to the sisters," he said. "This was heading toward resolution even before that [gift] came to light."

Jane Bunting died late last year; Margaret passed away last month. The unmarried sisters, who left no survivors, were devoted to St. John's and the Dominican nuns. The Buntings grew up in Lynn and amassed a personal fortune of $1.2 million by hanging onto stock from General Electric Co., where they worked for years as secretaries at the aircraft engine plant in west Lynn, their family attorney said.

"The money just accumulated," said Arthur Frawley, a Peabody lawyer and executor of Margaret Bunting's estate. "Like most GE employees, they bought the stock on the [discounted] stock plan. They just held onto it over the years ... They were loyal parishioners at St. John's. The nuns were very good them. They wanted to remember them."

Frawley said the estate is being probated.

The gift - among the largest ever promised to St. John's or the Dominican Sisters - has clearly boosted spirits at St. John's, a parish of more than 6,000 members.

"I love the [nuns]," said Matthew Barbuzzi, 11, after Mass last Saturday. "They're nice to me. They don't say anything bad about people. They really know a lot about God."

"These are two wonderful women who have done a lot for this parish and town," said John Doherty, a 30-year parishioner who organized a group of other longtime parishioners to fight for the sisters. "It's been a tough road for this parish, but I think people feel lucky to have both Father Sheehy, who is a good Christian man, and the sisters ... Hopefully, we're moving forward in a positive way."

This story ran on page 1 of the Globe North section on 5/18/2003.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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