The young guys were finished with their warm-ups on the basketball court at Ronan Park in Dorchester and getting ready to choose sides for a game. Small problem: They only had nine players on hand. “Hey, Pops, how about making it ten?” one of the players said to an older man who was standing nearby looking on. “Not me,’ said the observer, whose thin, lanky frame suggested that he might be able to do a few runs up and down the court. “But thanks; you’re just going to have to make do with what you have.”
For Reverend Richard “Doc” Conway, BC High, Class of 1955, the invitation to join in a hoops scrimmage with young men from the neighborhood was an affirmation that his Roman collar didn’t set him apart from the street life of the parish he served, St. Peter’s on Meetinghouse Hill, a gathering place looking out over Boston Harbor that is rich in historical fetch extending back to the founding of Dorchester by the Puritans in 1630.
A bastion of three-decker Roman Catholicism over most of the 20th century that has seen its population shift in the last 40 years as the mostly working-class Irish who had sustained it began to move out and ethnic minorities – African Americans, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Cape Verdeans – moved in, 142-year-old St. Peter’s parish has been confronted in recent decades with violence and street crime as the transition firmed up and its church-going congregation, some 25,000 strong as recently as the early 1960s, dwindled to 1,000 or so regular participants 50 years later.
But transitions like the one that has transformed not only St. Peter’s but also several other close-by Dorchester parishes into communities of ethnic diversity rarely solidify; change just keeps on coming. And it’s that change that “Doc” Conway and his fellow clerics – Catholic, Protestant, urban fundamentalists, to name three – are working day and night to fashion into a positive and uplifting spirit that residents of the Bowdoin Street/Geneva Avenue neighborhood (so named for the east-west, north south axis streets that intersect at the west end of Bowdoin Street) can embrace as a promise for the future.
“Over the years I have always found it important to get out of the office and try to be present with people,” says Conway over coffee and toast at Ashley’s Breakfast Shop on Bowdoin Street. “In most parishes where I have served, this involved sports teams and attending high school games so the young people and their parents get to see you and eventually you create connections with the families. But Dorchester is different. Students go to many different schools all over the city. The best thing for me to do here is to walk around the neighborhoods, say hello to people on their porches or their front steps, stop by the playgrounds to watch some basketball or soccer, and after a while people begin to talk to you.”
Although retired, “Doc” Conway spends two to three nights a week out walking the streets with Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston of the Boston Police Department. Their work together is a partnership with the community to improve quality of life and reduce the violence on some of the toughest streets in Boston. “Father Doc is being far too modest in telling you that all he does is walk the streets,” says Baston. “There’s so much more to the daily life and charitable work of this truly remarkable human being.” Baston heads up the Neighborhood Watch Unit citywide as she presses for more all-around community engagement and she considers Father Conway her partner on the job, not simply a spiritual advisor.
“He is indefatigable, that’s what he is,” she says. “I think of us as a team – The Collar and The Badge – two people coming together to engage peace from different angles while we walk up and down the streets in the early evenings and weekends when people are out and about. And it’s not only me; Captain [Richard] Sexton, the commander of this police district, comes out and joins “Doc,” as do other officers and clerics from time to time.”
But please don’t think of him as a provincial type locally, interested only in Bowdoin/Geneva, Baston adds. “My job means I visit all the neighborhoods regularly and guess who asks if he can go along with me? We’ve been over at Franklin Field several times recently, and we have visited church meetings in Roxbury. And he somehow also finds the time by himself to stop in at the jails to check on the prisoners from the neighborhood, acting as a sort of news exchange agent for the families involved. Then “One morning, we were at Bromley Heath Housing project in the Roxbury/Jamaica Plain neighborhood and “Doc” had in his hands a list of the fourth-graders who were living there. He said he wanted to see how many of them had enrolled at nearby Nativity Prep, the Jesuits’ no-tuition middle school in Jamaica Plain, knowing that the number was minimal if not nil. So a “priest and a cop,” as one mother put it, spent the next hour or so knocking on doors talking to parents about the opportunities for their preteens at a great school they could get to easily. Wow – that’s Reverend Conway for you!”
The deputy isn’t finished. “Did he talk about the boxing nights?” He hadn’t, but others had. A few years back, Reverend Conway enlisted the help of local boxer-turned-DEA agent Paul Doyle, actor Mark Wahlberg, and several Boston Police officers assigned to the Safe Street program to begin a boxing program in the gym at St. Peter’s Teen Center. The priest believed that only good things could come of getting teens and officers to gather for a common sporting purpose.
“The kids attitude changes toward the police when they’re all in there working together,” Doc later told the Dorchester Reporter, adding that some of the young folks had for the first time expressed interest in joining the force when they grew up. The program involves both boys and girls, thanks in part, to Deputy Baston believing that girls could benefit just as much as the boys from boxing. “Creating connections and letting the kids know you care and are going to be there for them, that is what we are doing out here in the community,” Baston remarked on the success of the boxing program.
Back at Ashley’s, Father Conway reflects on his life at 76. “I have, unfortunately, celebrated the funerals of many in this neighborhood who have died by violence. I don’t think that I am perceived as a threat to anyone in the neighborhood. They tell me that I am the ‘Irish priest who speaks Portuguese.’ I ask young people if they are involved in any summer programs and try to encourage them to join something. Others I ask if they have jobs. If I have any leads, I try to pass on the information. I keep an updated list of possible opportunities with me for quick reference.”
The northern end of Dorchester is rich in parish real estate if not in numbers of congregants. The Catholic churches are close to each other – in the middle of the last century there were five parishes serving their own congregations and their schools with little worries about numbers of priests, and all were within a good walk of one another.
Today, it’s three priests for three parishes. Reverend Jack Ahern, the pastor of St. Peter, Holy Family, and Blessed Mother Teresa, lives with the “retired” Doc Conway and another priest of Haitian background, Reverend Jacques McGuffie, in the rectory at St. Ambrose down Adams Street in nearby Fields Corner.
“I have no idea of the number of families in each parish,” says Conway. People are moving constantly and often go to different parishes at different times. Holy Family in Uphams Corner is English, Hispanic, some Haitian, and very small in numbers. Hardly any English is spoken at Mass. Blessed Mother Teresa is mainly English with probably 2,000 families. St. Peter’s is English and Portuguese and would be larger, but most families do not fill out a census form.”
As he is talking, a young man comes into the shop and stops at the table where he greets “Doc” effusively. He is Evandro Carvalho, an attorney who came to the United States from Cape Verde when he was 15. On this day, the final vote is being held in a special election for state representative in the district and Carvalho is assured of gaining the seat after winning the primary several weeks before. The two banter for a bit in English and Portuguese before the politician leaves to see if he can get some more voters to go to the polls to affirm his win.
For his part, Reverend “Doc” Conway has a lot yet to do beyond the day. “What drives me,” he says, “is that I have the opportunity with the help of many others to see some of these kids succeed in life because they have learned to make the right choices.” With that, he heads down the street; there’s more talking and listening to do before the day is finished.
This article was originally published in the summer issue of “BC High Today,” the alumni magazine published by Boston College High School (bchigh.edu/news/publications).