New Bedford pastor hopes to start new chapter for homeless

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — While most people welcomed the dawn of 2015 with a litany of lofty New Year’s resolutions, Father Kevin Harrington is hoping to see a simple idea come to fruition.

“Some people learn by reading, others learn through different avenues,” Father Harrington said. “What I’ve found is those who have been able to improve their lot are usually those who are readers. I think they have a built-in system of curiosity and a desire to learn.”

That’s why this self-professed bookworm and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New Bedford recently set out to help some of the city’s downtrodden population better themselves in ways that aren’t already being met.

While there are many church and civic organizations working to assist those without a home to call their own, Father Harrington feels there is one need that isn’t being addressed, pardon the pun.

“It really bothers me that a city like New Bedford can provide food, clothing and shelter — and that’s absolutely laudable — but then you’ve got a library system and you’re failing the group that needs it most,” Father Harrington recently told The Anchor. “And it’s failing for a common-sense reason, which is: some of these people don’t have a permanent address.”

As a sitting trustee with the New Bedford Free Public Library, Father Harrington found a bit of inspiration in a well-established program for those with criminal convictions that’s been running at UMass Dartmouth since 1993.

“One of my parishioners told me to look into a program called Changing Lives Through Literature,” Father Harrington said. “What happens is the judges and courts select certain people who are savvy and might benefit from having a period of time during which they come every other week for six weeks to discuss classic literature. If they do that, they get time off from their probation. It’s a very successful program and it has reduced the recidivism rate.”

After attending a handful of sessions himself, Father Harrington struck upon the notion to do something similar for the city’s displaced workers.

“When you’re a trustee, you’re obviously not rolling up your sleeves and working onsite,” he said. “So you have to make choices. One of the choices I made was I looked at what some people saw as a blight — those who were gathering on the steps of the library and around the city. Some people make a mistake and all they see is the exterior and I often think they’re judging a book by its cover. That’s when it came to me that some people were reading there.”

Father Harrington is working to establish the Cobblestone Reading Program for the city’s downtrodden and he looks forward to seeing the first class of what he dubbed “Cobblestone Scholars” graduate from the program this year.

“It comes from the idea of them being street people in New Bedford, which is made up of cobblestone streets,” Father Harrington said of the name.

“I do not see the homeless as a threat,” he said. “I see them as an opportunity. Every person has a story to tell and I think everyone’s story is different. I do not believe that this is like group therapy, either — this is not something that involves psychology or anything like that.”

Father Harrington envisions the program as being inclusive and open to everyone.

“Any downtrodden person who wants to go there and turn the pages, that’s fine,” he said. “And this is not something that we’re going to say is just for the homeless.”

Father Harrington thinks that this accomplishment will go a long way towards restoring participants’ sense of self-worth and dignity.

“This is what I like to call bibliotherapy, because I believe in the power of books,” he said. “I refer to it as redemptive reading and it’s very important. If you ever want to transform someone, just think about redemption.”

A native of New Bedford who didn’t return until he was reassigned in 1999, Father Harrington also sees this as an opportunity to give something back to the city that nurtured him.

“I used to say that I had a cathedral for the soul in St. Lawrence Martyr Church and a cathedral for the mind in the New Bedford Free Public Library,” Father Harrington said. “Those were the two places where I could always be myself and feel I could have my own space and be close to God.”

An avid reader himself who won the Pope Pius X Reading Contest in fourth grade, Father Harrington credits this lifelong passion with allowing him to obtain scholarships and excel in school.

“Every once in a while when I go to the library, I see me — the kid who is probably considered nerdish, but he’s enjoying the library the way I did,” Father Harrington said. “That’s the reason I decided to become a library trustee. I felt it was one of the ways that I could give back something civically. I left New Bedford at the age of 17, but when I returned the experience of growing up in New Bedford came rushing back and back then the library was my world.”

Stressing that the Cobblestone Reading Program is not a “parish service project,” Father Harrington has been busy assembling a group of diverse people — parishioners and non-parishioners alike — to serve as moderators and facilitators.

“It’s not just about me or the Catholic Church,” he said. “It’s amazing the response we’ve had to this program. We’re getting more and more people involved. We have a much more diverse group of people and they all have different levels of education, but they’re not necessarily people who have been involved with the public.”

Even though one of his parishioners is an attorney who graciously offered the use of his New Bedford office space for the initial meetings, they still need to find a regular venue to host the reading sessions.

“I like to say we have the people, but not the steeple,” Father Harrington said.

Noting that the New Bedford Free Public Library would be an “ideal” meeting location, he said the recent negative publicity surrounding the homeless people loitering on the steps of the Pleasant Street facility has complicated that option.

But the lack of a meeting space hasn’t deterred them from forging ahead. He remains confident that the Cobblestone Reading Program will launch in 2015.

“The thing is when you believe in an idea and you know somehow that God will provide, what you do is you put all the things in place and you put it in God’s hands as to where that place will be,” he said.

Just as he vowed to serve Christ and His Church 40 years ago this May, Father Harrington has set a personal goal to “do what I feel I’m called to do the best.”

“All I’m trying to do in my life is something that does not revolve around myself,” he said. “To me, sadness is self-preoccupation and this has helped me to get outside of myself.”

“I want to seize this moment because there might be something that comes out of this that can endure,” Father Harrington added. “One day, they’ll be able to ask: who started the Cobblestone Reading Program? And they’ll say: it was that priest who was that nerdy kid. I could be part of a trivia contest!”

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