HAVERHILL — Unless one knew about it, there was no evidence yesterday that St. John the Baptist Church was enduring the sudden resignation of its pastor, the Rev. Keith LeBlanc.
The temporary administrator, the Rev. Paul Coughlin, told The Eagle-Tribune that Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, may name a new pastor within two months.
The Riverside parish celebrated its 55-year anniversary with a well-attended cookout and carnival on the church grounds. The dunk tank was a particularly popular activity that raised more than $400, according to a soaking wet Deacon Thomas Anthony. For $1 a throw, parishioners could sink Anthony or fellow Knights of Columbus Bill Vlahos and David Broderick.
Several minutes before the 10:30 a.m. Mass, Coughlin greeted the volunteers who were preparing food and setting up for the cookout. Coughlin was accompanied by his cocker spaniel, Bob.
LeBlanc, who had led St. John the Baptist Church since 2003, suddenly resigned June 18. According to the Archdiocese of Boston, the state Attorney General's Office and Haverhill police are investigating financial improprieties.
Parishioners were shocked and saddened by LeBlanc's sudden departure. The archdiocese has so far not provided many details, except to say LeBlanc is receiving "pastoral care."
During his homily, Coughlin used yesterday's Gospel reading, Luke 9:51-62, to teach that Christians cannot get hung up on the past. When a man told Jesus he had to bury his father before he could follow him, he said, "Let the dead bury the dead."
Indeed, Coughlin said he didn't have time to say goodbye to parishioners at St. John the Baptist Church in Peabody, where he was the parochial vicar, or assistant pastor. When he received the assignment to go to Haverhill, he had to pack his bags immediately.
"Time heals most wounds," he said in the homily.
Coughlin, who was brought up in Dorchester, in St. Peter and St. Gregory parishes, was ordained 19 years ago at age 27. After graduating from Catholic Memorial High School in Boston, he went right to St. John Seminary in Brighton, which used to confer bachelor's degrees.
The example of priests he knew during his youth in Dorchester — "good, holy guys" — inspired him to enter religious life, he said after the Mass.
"They were there for us in our times of need," he said. Coughlin said "being able to bring God's word and the sacraments to the people" is what he enjoys most about his calling. He recently returned from Rome, where, along with 15,000 other priests from around the world, he renewed his vows.
For Coughlin, ministry is a two-way street.
"More than they'll ever know, they've helped me grow as a person of faith," he said of the parishioners he has served in previous assignments. He predicted his new parishioners will also help him become a better priest.
Just in the short time he has been at St. John the Baptist, Coughlin said he has found out he's leading an active parish.
"All I had to do this morning was put on my vestments," he said. He was assisted by Anthony, four altar servers, two lectors, several Eucharistic ministers, an organist and a cantor at Mass.
If its history is any indication, this parish is not about to wither away. Many of the first families worshipped at St. James Church on Winter Street, but as more people settled in Riverside, they began to think it was time to start a parish of their own.
Under the leadership of the Rev. James Ryan, they attended Mass at Haverhill Stadium, across Lincoln Avenue from the present site of St. John the Baptist. During the winter, Ryan, brother of legendary Haverhill High School football coach Paul Ryan, would celebrate Mass in the locker room.
"He had a vision," recalled Celeste McCusker, one of the founding parishioners who served food yesterday and also helps the parish as a Eucharistic minister and sacristan. With Ryan as their leader, they organized pony rides, bazaars, fairs and other activities to raise money to build their church, she said.
They succeeded. McCusker's late husband, James McCusker, was confirmed at St. James Church in 1953. His younger sister, Susan McCusker Rowe, received that sacrament at the new St. John the Baptist Church in 1956.
McCusker describes her parish as "kind, loving, friendly and welcoming."
"We are moving forward," Anthony said.
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