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Yvonne Abraham

Doing well in order to keep doing good

The shrine on Arch Street, downtown, has always been a remarkable place.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/File

It is a venerable outfit, to which its customers have a religious devotion. But its financials were precarious, it was suffering an image problem — many saw its work as out-of-date, even obsolete — employee morale was lousy, and a new chief executive was about to launch a do-or-die bid to save it.

The plight of St. Anthony’s Shrine had all the makings of a Harvard Business School case study. And in fact it soon will be one, a teaching moment for the next generation of corporate titans.

And for all of us. The shrine on Arch Street, downtown, has always been a remarkable place, one where millionaires and homeless people sit side by side in the pews at 39 masses a week. Since it opened in 1947, the shrine has been a refuge for those who drive past other churches in search of a more expansive view of their Catholic faith, and, increasingly, for those cut off from the prosperity of the city that surrounds it.

But this peaceful place was in grave peril just a few years ago. The shrine’s operating costs were massive for its size, and it was burning through its cash reserves. In addition to the 27 Franciscan friars living and working in the building, there were 44 people on the lay staff. And because this was a church, and not a corporation, many staffers saw their work as a vocation, like the friars’, and assumed the jobs were theirs for life.


That’s a beautiful thing. Also, a problem. People weren’t being held to normal performance standards, and their paychecks swelled over the years even as the church strained to meet the needs of those it served. No longer merely a place of worship, the shrine had become a critical community resource — providing food for the poor, services for substance abusers, grief counseling, help for veterans, and programs for kids, gays and lesbians, and the elderly. And it was all threatened by the budget crisis.


The problem was, the friar who ran the place was not the right person to right it; his management style made almost everybody miserable.

His replacement was a very different sort of man, Father Tom Conway, a former business school teacher with an easy laugh and a PhD in accounting.

Conway had to transform the shrine, and he began by laying bare the grim numbers in church bulletins. That caught the eye of Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who researches how organizations reinvent themselves. What fascinated Raffaelli, who attends services at the shrine, was that Conway had to make radical changes, but remain true to Franciscan values of kindness and egalitarianism.

Conway spent more than a year just watching how things ran on Arch Street. He saw many employees working inefficiently, communicating directly with him rather than each other. There was also a growing disconnect with the world outside: In addition to plummeting cash reserves, donations had cratered. None of this could continue.

In the spring of 2015, he laid off 15 employees. It was an awful day, and the pain lingers for some at the shrine. Many of those who remained were angry with Conway, including the friars with whom he shared dinner every night.

“I got pushback,” Conway recalled. “I’m still getting it . . . We have this reputation of always being nice to people, of looking out for the underdog, but if you don’t protect the larger organization, you can’t do anything for anyone.”


He made changes those who had been at the Shrine longer probably couldn’t.

“I’m more of a thinker than a feeler,” he said. One of his brothers told him nobody else would have had the heart to do what he did. “I think it was a veiled insult,” he said, laughing.

Conway also re-assessed the church’s expenses, reconnected with donors, and pushed the church to be more visible, on social media and through advertising.

Visits from out-of-towners are up. Last Fall, the church held its first gala, raising a whopping $700,000. The shrine is back in the black, meeting more needs while spending less.

It’s a case study — in doing good while doing well.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.