At the church she called home, she found her own quiet way to protest
HANSON — On the first Sunday morning in September, Rebecca Shipman Hurst gathered up her things — her small quilted purse, her car keys, the sealed pink envelope containing her weekly offering to the Catholic Church — and walked out the door of her weathered gray farmhouse.
Carefully she backed her car down the gravel driveway and steered south toward St. Joseph the Worker, the small-town parish she has long called home.
She had raised a child in the church, and it had become her community and a source of joy. At 69, she was deeply invested in the faith she’d worked so hard to nurture, but today was, for her, a day of protest. Hurst had dressed in white for the noon Mass. She’d chosen the color to signify purity and innocence. And she had asked others to wear white to Mass too, to join her in a silent, symbolic call for action.
Her decision had come after many days of prayer. Reeling in the wake of the latest upheaval in the church, Hurst had asked God for guidance as she wrestled with the news: the grand jury report from Pennsylvania, detailing horrific sex crimes against 1,000 children; the stunning claim by a former Vatican official that Pope Francis had protected an abusive cardinal. She knew that in the face of so much trouble, her white lace jacket was a tiny gesture, a pebble tossed into a sea of sorrow. But it was her own gesture, forged by her own faith, and it was enough to give her hope.
She drove the 3 miles to her church, on a quiet, sun-dappled road south of Boston, wondering if others at the Mass would wear white too.
* * *
Hurst had been raised Catholic, attending Catholic schools, but little things about church practice troubled her. A priest said her dog couldn’t go to heaven. A friend’s mother, who was divorced, was denied the Communion sacrament. By her late teens, she had drifted from her faith. She spent 20 years away from the church, at times thinking of herself as an atheist.
When her father died, Hurst felt drawn back to her religion. Spending time with him at the end of his life, she saw the peace and comfort his Catholicism gave him, and she longed to reclaim that peace for herself. But when she first tried returning to the church, she found her faith was not so easily restored.
“It seemed like I had burned that bridge,” she recently recalled. “How would I get across it again?”
She found a way when she became a mother. A social worker suggested she and her husband go back to church when they adopted a child, some 20 years ago, because it would give them a strong, supportive community. They put down roots at St. Joseph the Worker, where their daughter took religious classes and sang in the choir, and it was there that Hurst finally found her faith again.
It took time and effort to let go, to let herself surrender to a higher power. But when she did, it brought her peace, and moments of great joy. She became a Eucharistic minister, at her young daughter’s request, and she treasured the one Sunday every month when she assisted with Communion during Mass. Nothing lifted her like that transcendent interaction, giving a wafer or a cup of wine to others who treasured it as she did, and took it as a call to try and do Christ’s work on earth.
“To look up at that person in front of you, and say ‘The body of Christ’ . . .” Hurst paused, searching for the right words. “Some people avert their eyes, but sometimes our eyes meet, in a rapturous communion of belief.”
Every time that happened, she said, she felt “pure bliss.”
She could not imagine going back to a life without that feeling, or without the other gifts the church had given. Her daughter’s spiritual growth. Her own hard-won, deeply comforting belief that the loved ones she had lost — her mother, her sisters, and eventually, her husband — were still with her in spirit. Her close-knit church community was her foundation; in it she saw living saints, examples that inspired her.
So when crisis struck the church, in 2002, shaking its foundations, Hurst did not, could not, consider leaving. She had fought too hard to find her faith again. Having crossed that bridge, she never wanted to go back.
The only option was to fix the church she loved.
* * *
In the fall of that year, her parish in Hanson unveiled a brand-new church, lovingly designed and long anticipated, to replace the crowded old building their burgeoning flock had outgrown. Hurst had donated to the project in her parents’ memory, excited to be a part of the milestone. But when the church doors were flung open for the first time, on a bright September day 16 years ago, she was missing from the celebration.
Cardinal Bernard Law, under heavy fire that fall for protecting and retaining dozens of abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, had come to celebrate the inaugural Mass at St. Joe’s. And as much as she had come to love her parish, Hurst could not bring herself to worship with him.
“I couldn’t reconcile it with my anger,” she says now. “I didn’t feel he had protected God’s children.”
It was the beginning, she said, of her “adult understanding” of the church, and a lasting wariness of the hierarchy. Like Catholics everywhere, she grieved for the victims, and struggled to comprehend the magnitude of their suffering. Compelled to do something in response, she volunteered to train others in her parish in a new curriculum adopted nationwide to prevent abuse.
She saw it as her responsibility, to care for her own parish. She assumed that elsewhere, at the higher levels, those responsible were making necessary changes.
That assumption lasted years, as the discoveries in Boston reverberated outward, revealing caches of abuse in Phoenix and in Guam, in Louisiana, Minnesota, and beyond. Hurst was preoccupied, in those years, with her husband’s serious illness. Still she believed the church was moving forward.
Then all at once in August, her trust fell away. She had never seen the failure of accountability so clearly: Catholics, taught to place their trust in God, had erred by placing the same trust in human leaders. The scale of the hidden abuse in Pennsylvania felt to Hurst like an intolerable burden. Why and how had it stayed a secret so long? How many times could she forgive this sin, to reconcile the light she’d found with this persistent darkness?
She wanted answers. So she turned to God.
As the summer waned, she prayed for guidance, with her striped gray tomcat Gorby lolling at her feet. Gradually, she realized what she had to do: turn her contemplation into action. For the first time, she felt responsible for the whole church, not just her own parish. This was a critical moment, when secrets — predators, and their protectors — had to be purged. If Catholics didn’t demand it, then who would?
She didn’t know exactly what God wanted her to do, but she knew she had to start. She thought of the outspoken nun Sister Joan Chittister, an advocate for Catholic women’s empowerment, who says she remains in the church because there is work to do there. “Do something,” she tells disgruntled Catholics.
Do something, Hurst told herself. But what?
An idea came to her, simple and, she hoped, powerful. It was a beginning, and maybe it would grow.
* * *
After Mass, the first time she wore white, she greeted her friends as she always did. When she saw an opening, she told them what she had conceived.
For Marilyn Shaw, the idea resonated. Asked why she stays in the church, she compares it to keeping faith in democracy, even when political leaders fail. The big ideals are what one believes in, not the flawed individuals who come and go.
“Men make mistakes, but we don’t worship men,” said Shaw, who studied theology in college. “You have hope that we’ll move on, and have new leaders, and that love and goodness will win out.”
Hurst wrote a few lines about her protest on her Facebook page the next day, and encouraged others to share the idea. In the next week, 14 of her 235 Facebook friends chose to add her post to their own pages.
Meanwhile, she had realized the limits of her own white wardrobe. She headed out to the end-of-summer sales, buying several white blouses, jackets, and a pair of slacks at Macy’s.
She also called her parish priest, the Rev. Mike Hobson, to explain what she was doing. His response was even more supportive than she’d hoped.
“If you’d like to get out front on this, you’d be welcome,” she joked.
She thought about spreading the word beyond her own parish, maybe through Catholic newspapers or TV programs; in her mind she saw a spreading sea of white. She was mindful, though, that pride could taint her efforts — that she must act for the good of the church, not from a desire to make her own idea successful.
On the phone with her fiance, praying the rosary together as they did nightly, she asked the Holy Spirit to take away her pride.
* * *
She arrived early for Mass that first Sunday in September. In the foyer of the church, other early birds were gathered, two or three dressed in white. Hurst smiled, realizing that some of them may have joined the protest inadvertently.
Altogether, about 10 people at the noon Mass wore white, scattered through a crowd of about 100. Among them was Sharon Kennedy, a nurse and a St. Joe’s parishioner for decades, who said she would continue wearing white each Sunday.
“I hope it spreads,” she said. “It makes me want to cry, what people have gone through.”
Marilyn Shaw wore white too, and shared the idea with her daughter Kate McHugh, who planned to wear white to her church in Rhode Island.
“It’s an opportunity to start a conversation, and not let it be brushed aside,” said McHugh, 30. “We love our faith and we want to keep it alive, and that means acknowledging the problem, standing up to the hierarchy, and asking what is being done.”
During Mass at St. Joseph the Worker that Sunday, Hobson talked about Hurst’s idea in his homily, calling the churchgoers’ quiet action a fulfillment of Christian responsibility.
“In the desperate darkness of this world, it is the light of Christ that burns out evil,” the priest said, a painting of Jesus in a long white robe behind him. “We are called forth to speak out about injustices, and I would ask all of us to consider that. . . . Some may say it’s trite and simple, but it’s powerful.”
His endorsement was an unexpected boost for Hurst, but it was not the best part of her morning. That came near the end of Mass, when she left her pew and stood up front to help hand out Communion wafers.
“The body of Christ,” she told each parishioner who passed before her, the ghost of a smile on her lips, searching their eyes for a spark of shared faith.