Where God Comes In
Father Rich Roberge’s Journey Through Priesthood
By Gary Bouchard | Photography by Jeff Dachowski
Two early childhood memories live indelibly in the mind of Father Richard Roberge. They replay like snipped scenes from an old family movie reel.
Scene 1: Berlin, New Hampshire, circa late 1950s. There is his dad – larger than life, in a big white apron, cooking for the family and giving Richard his bath. “He worked in the woods all week as a lumberjack and when he came home on the weekends he helped out so my mother could rest.”
Scene 2: There is a priest who has come to the front door of the Roberge home. He is placing a hand consolingly on the arm of Richard’s mother as she suddenly begins to cry. The young boy sits on the floor of the front room holding the vacuum hose with which he had been playing fireman. “I was only 3 years old,” he recalls, “But I remember that day.”
The priest had come to the Roberge home that winter morning bearing the ominous news that Richard’s father Emile had died in a logging accident. The very next day his mother gave birth to his younger sister Emilie, named for her father. “My mother never even went to the funeral,” he recalls, “And I never understood what had happened at the time. At the formal dinner table on Sundays when we gathered in our best clothes, my dad wasn’t there with his Boston Globe as usual. I would ask ‘Oú est papa?’ and everyone would start to cry.”
The significance of these family events would take decades for Father Rich to understand. For though they took place in a world where austerity and suffering were woven into the fabric of a hard-working, faith-filled people, they also foreshadowed changes to that world that the people of Berlin, like the bewildered child in those memory reels, could scarcely have imagined.
Berlin in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a very Catholic world. The 25,000 people living there populated four parishes, three French Canadian and one Irish. Fifteen priests served the Catholics in the city and two other Catholic parishes thrived down the road in Cascade and Gorham. Each pastor had two or three associates and each parish had a grammar school. Over 2,000 kids in the Berlin-Gorham area filled up the classrooms. Additionally, the city had two Catholic high schools. Rich grew up mowing the lawns and digging graves in the parish cemeteries. His family belonged to St. Anne Parish, but he often worshipped at St. Kieran because it was the only Mass in English.
Rich’s father had been born into poverty in Quebec without access to an education and his mother had completed 10th grade in Berlin. As parents they were intent upon their children receiving the best education they could provide. And though he had the same work ethic as his four siblings, who would all go on to achieve master’s degrees, Richard struggled academically. At the end of fifth grade he was sent to the University of New Hampshire to join 30 other kids for what was essentially a diagnostic camp staffed by graduate students. By the end of his time there it was discovered that he was dyslexic. With a better understanding of his condition and some tools to compensate, he pressed forward, though the mechanics of reading and writing would remain a struggle for the rest of his life.
By high school Rich began thinking seriously about the priesthood. “I thought I wanted to be a priest and I knew a priest who had gone to Saint Anselm, so I applied there. I made a deal with God: ‘If I get accepted to Saint Anselm I’ll consider being a priest.’”
He got accepted. “Since I was interested in the priesthood I was told to major in Philosophy, and oh, Philosophy was such a struggle for me, torture at times. But many people encouraged me and helped me with their gifts and talents. Overall, it went well. I attended daily Mass at the abbey and went to prayers whenever I could. It took me five years, but I made it and then it was right off to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“My greatest attraction to the priesthood,” he recalls, “was to be of service to others and to experience the presence of Jesus in the people around me. I really had a desire to share my faith and my experience of Jesus with others,” he says. “The fear I still carried with me was my feeling of incompetence and weakness. But the Lord continues to amaze me by the people he put in my path to journey with me.”
Father Rich was ordained in 1985 and began work as a priest at St. Patrick Parish in Jaffrey. In 1986 he was assigned to St. Paul Parish in Franklin, and soon after he found himself presiding at the funeral Mass of his oldest brother Paul, who died of cancer. This personal loss was matched by a communal one when as pastor he had to oversee the closing of St. Mary, the parish school.
As it turned out these losses were preparation for what lay ahead when, after 10 years in Franklin, Father Rich returned to his hometown of Berlin for what would be the most challenging work of his priesthood so far.
The Berlin where Father Rich arrived in 1996 was very different from the northern Catholic kingdom into which he had been born forty years earlier. The mill that had been the economic engine for over a century had ceased operation. Thousands of people had moved away and those who stayed struggled to find work. A strong core of the faithful remained, but they were aging and fewer in number. And of course there were fewer priests to serve them. Where once 2,000 students had been enrolled in Catholic schools, only 50 remained in the last Catholic school in the city.
“When I arrived in Berlin to be pastor of St. Kieran,” Father Rich recalls, “everyone was in denial.” There were still four parishes in Berlin and one in Gorham and there was one Catholic school in Berlin. People recognized the diminished numbers in the parishes and the costs of maintaining all the buildings, “but everyone said ‘It’ll be another ten years before anything needs to be done.’” No parishes in the Manchester Diocese had yet been closed or consolidated, and Berlin would be a sad harbinger of difficult times to come for many churches in New Hampshire.
An inter-parish study committee was formed and met for a year and a half. At the end of the process the decision was made to consolidate the four churches into one new parish known as Good Shepherd. Soon after that consolidation, the paper mill was permanently closed and torn down. The following year, Good Shepherd Parish was twinned with Holy Family Parish in Gorham. Remembering these events, Fr. Rich reflects, “This was not what I expected. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined becoming not just my mother’s pastor, but pastor of the whole city in which I grew up, nor could I have imagined ever seeing the closing of the paper mill.”
The closing of a church requires a ritual that invokes a poignant emotional remembrance of all that has occurred sacramentally within the walls of that church. As Father Rich points out, “We in Berlin were the first in New Hampshire to use the liturgical rite of closing a parish. Several stations are prepared with a candle lit at each: at the baptismal font, at the confessional, at the statue of Mary, and at the main altar. A prayer is said at each station, remembering those who were baptized, received forgiveness, were married, and whose funerals were celebrated there. After prayer at each station, the candle is put out. Then at the end, a purple ribbon seals the door. We did this at three churches and I had relatives at every one of these parishes!”
Asked how he coped with the emotional strain of what he had to do, Father Rich insists, “People think because I’m the priest it’s easy, but believe me I cried like a baby at every closing that week. But,” he says, “I also think God prepared me for this. The loss of my dad instilled in me some things at a very young age. I never saw my mother depressed when I was growing up. She would cry sometimes, and when I got older I remember asking her if maybe she wouldn’t want to get re-married because maybe I’d like a dad. She said ‘No man could ever love you kids like your father did and I could never love a man like I did your father.’
“My mother told me that when my father died, they wanted to medicate her, because she was pregnant, but she said, ‘This is where God comes in, I need to feel everything I’m feeling.’ I learned from examples like that. Closing schools and churches has been the most painful thing in my priesthood and I have definitely had to learn ‘where God comes in.’”
In 2010, Father Rich was assigned as pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Sacred Heart, and St. Peter in Concord, with the task of consolidating the three parishes which became Christ the King Parish. He continues to serve there as pastor today. While the process of merging parishes in Concord was not as wrought with personal memories as Berlin, Father Rich also knew from his experience in Berlin the new hope that can arise from the creation of a new parish. “Bringing three parishes together to form one parish is difficult and painful, but wonderful in some ways. There is always anger and sadness, but also a core of people who understand that it’s not about a particular church, but the people, the community, people who understand that ultimately it’s about Jesus.
“I think it’s interesting that both times I have overseen parish mergers we have asked the parishioners to submit names and to choose the name for their new parish. Both times the parishioners have chosen Christo-centric names. ‘Good Shepherd’ and ‘Christ the King’ both came from the people. That tells me that they recognize that in the end Jesus is what is most important. The mission statement of Christ the King is ‘Proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ Well, that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?
Father Rich describes with enthusiasm his parish’s current renewal and re-evangelization through the Alpha Course. “We are reintroducing people to Jesus, moving Catholics from maintenance to mission, fanning the flames of faith in people’s hearts because we want them to share their faith with other people, to be more intentional about being Catholic.”
Beyond his parish, Father Rich’s ministry extends into prisons, something he began in Berlin, and continues in a limited way now that he is in Concord. He describes one inmate in Berlin who he “sort of adopted as my son after he was baptized and received the sacraments.” Father Rich was able to assist the man after he was released and moved to Concord to be reunited with his own son. The two of them remain close, and while a subsequent slide into addiction has led to re-incarceration, Father Rich can see hope of recovery, and the breaking of the cycle for the next generation in this man’s son.
He speaks as well of conversions he has witnessed at the Merrimack House of Corrections where he has helped bring inmates to Christ through the sacraments. “The cellmate of a young man I was visiting became so interested in the teachings that he wanted to take part. He ended up being baptized, confirmed and receiving the Eucharist. The guy was glowing,” he says, showing a picture on his phone. “He really had a conversion experience.”
What he has seen in prisons, he says, is true everywhere. “There is so much sadness, so much need for Jesus in the lives of people. That person sitting in the back of the church in tears. Life can be just so complex, marriages, families, jobs. There is brokenness of all kinds. I think that is the one thing for a priest to try to have, the authenticity that comes from an awareness of our own brokenness. You can’t fake that. Isn’t that why Jesus became human?”
The awareness and appreciation of his own “brokenness” is why, perhaps, when he looks back upon his three decade journey as a priest, Father Rich is surprised to discover that “strangely, the low points of my priesthood have also been the high points. The valleys have also been the peaks.”
Standing before the white-clad children of Christ the King Parish this past spring as they prepared to receive their First Communion, Father Rich was visibly moved by the answers they gave to his questions. “I have never been disappointed in the answers the kids give. They understand our call to imitate Jesus.” On that day his thoughts are far from the challenges of the past or the more populated churches of days gone by. Instead they are focused on the eight and nine-year-old witnesses assembled in front of him. “I see amazing faith in these children. They challenge us adults to be more childlike and dependent on God. Not only do they inspire us in the present, they give us hope for the future.”