Brief Synopsis

In 2001, an irreverent, young, Harvard-educated Catholic priest arrived at Saint Patrick Parish in the hard-pressed former mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Father Paul O’Brien soon discovered that trying to foster an inclusive community amidst the ethnic tensions of this working-class, multicultural parish would be no mean feat. Older parishioners like Edna McGregor were resentful of a new generation of immigrants—people like the tattooed Elvys Guzman, a former gang-banger from Santo Domingo—who was seen playing basketball with other Latino teenagers in the parish center. Meanwhile more idealistic parishioners like Peggy Oliveto were trying to reach out to those in need but faced cultural entanglements that grew more complicated with the passage of time. Filmed over four years, Scenes from a Parish explores the personal stories a Catholic parish struggling to reconcile the ideals of faith with the cultural realities of a globalized United States.

Full Synopsis

Fr. Obrien talks with teen at basketball practice In 2001, Paul O’Brien, an irreverent, young, Harvard-educated Catholic priest arrived in Lawrence, Massachusetts to take over the reins of Saint Patrick Parish. A hundred years ago, Lawrence was a thriving mill town and Saint Patrick’s was home to a large community of immigrant Irish mill workers. Today, the mills are closed, the Irish-American families are a dwindling minority and a new generation of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and Cambodia are looking to St. Patrick’s as their spiritual home. Father Paul quickly discovered that trying to foster an inclusive community in this working-class, multicultural parish would be no mean feat.

Filmed over four years, Scenes from a Parish is a feature-length documentary film about a neighborhood church in a time of globalization and accelerated cultural change. We watch as Father O’Brien embarks on an ambitious plan to build a church-based meal center that will feed the hungry of Lawrence. He enlists high-profile allies for help while dealing with tensions from throughout the parish. The film delves into the personal stories of a rich collection of characters who come to the church seeking fellowship, but face obstacles that threaten to drive them apart:

Long-time parishioner Frank Martin is distressed and along with other older parishioners questions Father Paul’s hunger initiative. He's been helping the poor in his city for forty years. But now he finds the personal lives of those in need more and more perplexing, and his compassion is waning.

Edna McGregor is also suspicious. Father O’Brien, she thinks, is neglecting seniors as he invites teenagers from the neighborhood to play basketball in the parish center. She resents the Spanish and multicultural masses that have made the newcomers’ lives here that much easier—but leave the veteran parishioners bewildered.

Elvys Guzman at church Elvys Guzman has arrived from the Dominican Republic, sporting tattoos, piercings and a menacing look. But in reality Elvys is a sensitive soul trapped in a gangster's body. Before he came to the church, he had had dark thoughts about ending his life. Rosaura Vásquez, also from the Dominican Republic, must overcome her fears to sing in the Anglo choir. Privately she wrestles with a deep inner conflict.

When Saint Patrick outreach volunteer Peggy Oliveto visits a group of homeless families, she befriends a single mother named Theresa Santell. Over the years, their unlikely friendship grows more complicated, as Theresa's life circumstances and choices test the limits of Peggy’s Christian love.

Scenes from a Parish attempts to define that elusive and fragile entity known as community. The film observes closely as the faithful who aspire to a communal ‘body of Christ’ contend with forces that drive them apart. We see the ideals of Catholic theology pitted against pressures that put these at risk.

The scenes from this parish, however small and intimate, resonate beyond the parish grounds as a statement about the United States at the start of a new century. Life at Saint Patrick’s anticipates what lies ahead for all Americans: how perceive each other, whether we choose to engage or withdraw from our neighbors; these are matters of consequence that will shape the future of our country.

PBS National Premiere

As seen on the PBS series Independent Lens.

Scenes From a Parish DVD

Order DVD

DVD is available in home video and for parishes, colleges and universities.

with English and Spanish subtitles


Order Faith-Sharing Edition

Also available is the Faith-Sharing Edition DVD and Film Faith-Sharing Guide through RENEW International

Order Faith-Sharing Edition

Watch Online

The film is available for online streaming through Snag Films.

Watch Now