DRACUT — The three teenagers waited patiently under the dark sky outside St. Francis Parish on Holy Thursday. It was shortly before 9 p.m. and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper had just ended. Most parishioners were still inside, deep in quiet prayer and adoration.
Julia Smith, 16, her sister Norah, 14, and Mike Cook, 16, had other plans. They were joining a group of adults in Seven Churches Visitation, a centuries-old Roman Catholic tradition during which parishioners on Holy Thursday visit different churches to pray.
This was a first for the Smith sisters from Pelham, N.H. Cook, of Dracut, has partaken in the tradition leading up to Easter Sunday.
“I’m expecting something really spiritual. Even today at Mass, I usually try to pay attention as much as I can, but I felt like I paid much more attention today for some reason,” Norah Smith said. “I feel like it’s going to be really spiritual and the Holy Spirit is going to touch me in some way or another.”
Jessica Keefe, the church’s admin & parish communications coordinator, took great care in mapping out the route of churches they were destined to. The first was St. Patrick’s Church in Lawrence, then St. Lucy and St. Monica Parishes in Methuen. The following three were in Lowell: St. Patrick’s, St. Joseph the Worker Shrine, and St. Michael Parish. The seventh and final church was their own — St. Francis Parish.
The history of this pilgrimage practice dates back to St. Philip Neri of Rome, according to the Rev. Sean Maher, pastor of St. Francis Parish in Dracut. With the closings of local churches, maintaining the tradition has become difficult, he said. The participants must make it to each church during the period of adoration.
“For young people it involves both interior disposition but also there’s a little bit of movement in action, which keeps people interested,” Maher said. “There’s a sense of achievement at the end of it, that you’ve gone to the seven churches, you’ve completed your mission.”
The intergenerational group of about a dozen split into three cars, one of which was driven by Emily Noel, volunteer coordinator of service ministry. The Smiths climbed into Noel’s electric blue Ford Fusion and on they went to St. Patrick’s Church in Lawrence. During the ride, Julia read a Bible passage, the first of seven that correspond with the stops Catholics believe Jesus Christ made on his way to Calvary, where he was crucified.
Noel and the sisters met the others in the parking lot of St. Patrick’s and together they walked in. Congregants, mostly Latino, looked at them curiously from the wooden pews before turning their gazes back to the front of the dim church. There were lit candles at the altar. Cook sat in the seventh row, Julia and Norah Smith in the ninth. Norah Smith clasped her hands in front of her mouth and closed her eyes.
Had to move quickly
After a few minutes of prayer, they got up and left. They had to move quickly if they were to reach all seven churches before adoration ended.
By the time they arrived at both St. Lucy and St. Monica Parishes in Methuen, it was too late to go in because parishioners there had begun what’s known as Night Prayer. The pastor recites verses and congregants respond back. They crowded in the tiny lobby of St. Monica Parish, a few peering at the nave through the small windows of a door.
Noel continued driving through light drizzle to the remaining churches. On their rides in between, Cook shared what felt like an endless stream of jokes.
“Did you know the moon has a restaurant on it? Great food, no atmosphere,” he deadpanned.
Cook also pointed out that the shovel was a groundbreaking invention.
Chuckles filled the car.
“You’ve like perfected the dad joke,” Noel said with an amused grin.
At St. Patrick Parish in Lowell, they prayed for a few minutes. A few nuns were among the worshippers.
With six churches down, the group traveled back to Dracut. Outside St. Francis Parish, the three teens reflected on their night. They agreed it helped prepare them for Easter Sunday.
Norah Smith said she accomplished her goal of praying about something different at each parish. Julia Smith thought about the passages they took turns reading during their time spent in Noel’s car. Cook said he prayed about both current and past events.
“To go through all the different churches made me really relax and realize that it’s Holy Week, and I should be reflecting on Jesus,” Norah Smith said. “Easter is coming.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.