Father Michael Della Penna / Photo credit by Mirjona Lleshaj
An interview is usually a secular event, but when Rev. Michael Della Penna, OFM, asks if we can start the meeting with a prayer it makes perfect sense. A simple blessing is an act of profound grace in a topsy-turvy world. When the moment of reflection is over, Father Michael is ready to talk about coming home to the North End, his work as pastor of the historic St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish on Hanover Street that serves as a neighborhood anchor, and his connection to his parishioners with whom he spent months physically apart but connected to through online channels – and at an acceptable distance.
“I want the people who come to the church to feel safe,” said Father Michael from his office that is nestled into a building adjacent to the historic and beautiful church sanctuary that traditionally draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. “They must feel safe, physically, and also in their faith. The Church can play an important role in helping them find peace in their lives.”
To get a sense of just how important St. Leonard’s and its pastor are to the North End, you need spend only a short time near the church or the Peace Garden on Hanover that, during busier times, has served as a respite for countless local residents as well as visitors and travelers. Father Michael is, in a way, like a mayor of his own greeting people, talking with them, helping them when problems arise.
It’s not that much of a stretch as this is his neighborhood. Father Michael grew up “just around the corner,” he said noting that he started in his new post at the beginning of 2020. And, by accounts, did so with all the enthusiasm and wonder that a new year brings. “I was looking forward to it and still am,” said Father Michael, who exudes optimism even when talking about the effects of Covid-19 on his community. “This time has brought a different kind of blessing. People can connect with their faith and with Christ in a more personal way,” he said. “This time can give people the opportunity to be more intentional and purposeful in their faith.” Father Michael’s roots go deep in the North End. Born and raised in this Boston neighborhood, Father Michael attended Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country, has degrees in psychology and philosophy and received a Masters of Divinity from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He was ordained a priest in 1999 as a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate Conception Province. Before returning to Boston, Father Michael served in Guatemala for 11 years where he was director of the Valley of the Angels Orphanage. He also was in Canada for six years and was in Rome for three where he received a doctorate degree in Franciscan spirituality from the Pontifical University of St. Anthony.
St Leonards Church / Photo credit by Mirjona Lleshaj
Father Michael is both a scholar and a friendly neighbor to his community. Wearing a T-shirt that says “John 3-16” – for the chapter and verse of the Bible of the oft-quoted part of the gospel that starts “For God so loved the world…” – Father Michael is effusive in his discussions about his parish and its future.
On a sunny June morning, St. Leonard’s was open for worship. “Welcome back” is the headline on The Pilot, the weekly newspaper published by the Archdiocese of Boston, that is stacked on a table near where the font with holy water used to be. That is one of the small changes that has happened to allow people to more fully participate in their faith. There is hand sanitizer (some marked “strong”) and spray cleaner with paper towels to wipe down the pews. But Father Michael focuses on the future, even when asked about the unsettled present, a fact made all the more remarkable because the physical church buildings were closed up just as Catholics were entering the holiest time of the Church’s calendar.
Father Antonio Nardoianni, Father Claude Scrima, St Leonards Church / Photo credit by Matt Conti
“Of course, a priest loves to be in front of his people and celebrating the Mass with the parish in person,” Father Michael said. “We have found new ways of bringing people together and celebrating. “ Those include online streaming of weekly services, using social media to communicate with the parish and community, and reaching out to members of the community directly.
He does anticipate a time when St. Leonard’s can be as open and welcoming as this Hanover Street parish has been for more than 120 years. “It will be a great time when our church, once again, serves as a place for our parishioners to worship, but welcome people to our garden and our church as a place to reflect and stop for a time. We will be back in full…and all are welcome in our church: all faiths, all genders, all backgrounds, all preferences. All are welcome.”