HAVERHILL — The Rev. Richard Burton is coming home — almost.
Beginning this spring, the Haverhill native will lead the flock at St. Lucy Parish in Methuen after leading two Catholic parishes in Salem and Peabody.
Burton, 50, said he will replace St. Lucy's pastor, the Rev. Thomas Keyes, who is going to do missionary work in South America with the Missionary Society of St. James.
"I love the Merrimack Valley and it's great to come back," Burton said. "I had in a request for the last year or so that if something opened up in the Haverhill area that I'd move closer to home, and closer to my parents Lewis and Hortense Burton, who are in their older years."
Lewis Burton was mayor of Haverhill from 1976 to 1977, the year Richard Burton graduated from Haverhill High School.
Burton, who calls himself a "second-vocation priest," entered the priesthood later in life and after a career in the Navy and four years spent teaching physics at Malden High School.
He was ordained a priest in 2003 and spent the next two years as parochial vicar of Holy Rosary Church in Lawrence. Two years later he was named pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Salem, which had been targeted for closing.
He also serves as chaplain at Bishop Fenwick, where he teaches physics. Two years ago he was given a third ministry, which was to lead Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Peabody. He said that although a seven-day work week fits his workaholic nature, it can take a physical and mental toll.
Transferring to St. Lucy is a chance to spend more time with family and friends in the Haverhill area and for activities such as skiing as well as playing golf with his father.
His work in Peabody and Salem requires driving back and forth to preside over Mass at both parishes. He is assisted at St. Thomas by a Jesuit priest from Boston College and by a Brazilian priest at Our Lady of Fatima, which he said is a Portuguese National Parish.
"When I spoke with Cardinal Sean O'Malley he was very concerned with our three ministries here," Burton said. "They will replace me at the parishes, but it is unlikely there would be a priest permanently assigned to the high school."
He said members of both parishes are prepared to welcome his replacement.
Burton said he knows very little about St. Lucy, but hopes to learn more after he meets with Keyes sometime within the next few weeks.
"Every parish is unique and they all have their own personality," Burton said.
The Rev. Robert Conole, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish in Bradford, said it is never easy moving from a parish you've come to embrace to a new one where there are many unknowns.
"There's a little bit of a learning curve, such as finding where the fuse box is and other little things," Conole said.
Five years ago, Conole asked to be transferred from a parish in the South Shore to Sacred Hearts so he could be closer to his mother in Dracut, where he grew up.
"I'm sure Father Burton has that as a concern as his parents are getting along in years," Conole said. "There are other parallels, too. Our fathers were both firefighters, although my father was never a mayor."
Since being assigned to St. Thomas in 2005, Burton said he's gotten many of his ideas for his homilies from listening to conversations between clerks and grocery baggers at the Market Basket where he shops.
"I tell parishioners who ask me about my homily that I get ideas by just listening to people talk," he said. "You know you bombed when you look out there and the faces are blank and people are looking at the floor. If you prepare and deliver a good homily, they will come back next week. But the main part of my homilies is picking something from the three readings on a Sunday that relate to my life and the people's lives."
Up until a few years ago, Burton drove a small sports car. Then after rescuing a Maine coon hound he named Mitre, he swapped the sports car for a more practical sport utility vehicle.
"Mitre is named after a bishop's ceremonial hat," Burton said. "When I told Bishop Irwin about my dog, he joked that it was a good thing as it's the only mitre I'll ever get in my life."
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