LOWELL (AP) >> As parishioners and visitors filed out of the Immaculate Conception Church on East Merrimack Street after Saturday afternoon Mass, they lined up to profess their thanks and congratulations to their priest and several eminent guests.
The main church had been closed for extensive restorations for five years until reopening last December.
On Saturday, to punctuate the success of a parish that funded the $7 million project, Cardinal Sean O'Malley came from Boston to lead the celebration. In purple robes and full regalia, the cardinal stood next to Deacon Thomas Palanza, who led the renovations, and Immaculate Conception's pastor, the Rev. Nicholas Sannella.
They offered whispered blessings, posed for pictures, and shook hundreds of hands.
If the kind words they received weren't evidence enough of the faith community's gratitude, the completely full pews were.
"It's such a monumental church, we really wanted to see this church saved," O'Malley said as the last parishoners left, adding, "It's a treasure for Lowell, the Archdiocese, and the state of Massachusetts."
The Mass drew Catholics from across the region. Some former Lowellians even drove in from out of state for the occasion.
Pat Enwright and her husband, Mike, of Chelmsford, were awed by their time inside the building.
"I felt like I was in Rome," she said. "I want to bring my grandchildren to see this church."
The cardinal began his homily with a quick admiration of the building, before counseling those in attendance to rededicate themselves to their faith during Lent.
"Lent is an invitation to focus on our relationship with God and others," he said. "That gardener, Christ, is giving us another year to clean up our act and produce fruit."
His speech was full of references to second chances and rebirth that seemed fitting given the surroundings.
Immaculate Conception was built in 1870 and parts of its structure had begun to fail in recent years. Five years ago, when heavy chunks of plaster began falling from the ceiling, the building was closed and services were moved to a much smaller hall on the same grounds.
As Sannella sought contractors qualified to oversee the renovation, the bids he received were in the tens-of-milions of dollars.
Then O'Malley came to visit and over dinner he told Sannella that Palanza was exactly what he was looking for.
The Fall River deacon specializes in restoring old churches, and he included several modern twists in the construction of Immaculate Conception.
The building is heated by warm water running through pipes beneath the floor. The ceiling is made of light, cheap foam, instead of plaster. And the hall has a much brighter atmosphere now thanks to the addition of a dozen hanging light fixtures and the removal of curtains around the altar.
Those improvements are accompanied by a baptismal font and intricately crafted stations of the cross that were formerly in a Fall River church.
"In our Catholic churches, we have a tradition of beautiful architecture ... to let us view God's beauty," O'Malley said.
The cardinal's visit was vastly rewarding for longtime parishoners, who saw it as a confirmation of their faith and dedication to their church.
"The cardinal's presence symbolizes the parishioners' loyalty," said Jim O'Donnell, of O'Donnell Funeral Home, who was baptized in Immaculate Conception and has been a parishioner ever since. "It's spiritually uplifting. It has great meaning to members of the parish and the city."
Information from: The (Lowell) Sun, http://www.lowellsun.com