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Jim Kenyon: Room for the Holy Spirit with the Dartmouth devout

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/23/2021 10:33:51 PM
Modified: 2/23/2021 10:33:50 PM

With temperatures in the 20s on Sunday morning, heading off on a run, breaking out the snowshoes or bundling up to take the dog for a long walk all seemed like manageable outdoor activities.

But church?

I counted about 30 people who had braved the elements for outdoor Mass at Aquinas House, the Catholic student center, on the Dartmouth campus.

Talk about hardy souls.

The masked parishioners were a mix of Dartmouth students and local residents. Some were wrapped in blankets as they sat in folding metal chairs arranged at safe distances in Aquinas House’s horseshoe-shaped driveway.

Aquinas House Chaplain Brendan Murphy was about the only one not wearing a hat and gloves. But I detected the sleeve of a winter jacket poking out from underneath his vestment. “Oh yeah, I’ve got layers,” he confessed, “even long johns.”

In the age of COVID-19, mittens, wool hats and Sorels now qualify as Sunday best.

“You just dress for it,” said Tracy Walsh, a Hanover resident and Dartmouth alumna who attended Sunday’s service with her husband, Rob. “If you live in the Upper Valley, you should be able to handle a half-hour outside.”

After the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott both included places of worship on their list of closures. (One of the Upper Valley’s first recorded COVID-19 cases came out of church service in West Lebanon.)

For much of the spring, churches resorted to livestreaming services on Facebook, if they were held at all. When government restrictions eased, some churches resumed indoor services, keeping in mind social distancing and mask-wearing protocols. Quite a few Upper Valley churches took advantage of warmer weather to move outside for the summer and fall.

When winter arrived and temperatures regularly fell below freezing, most churches abandoned the great outdoors.

But not Aquinas House.

“You do what you have to do,” said Meg Costantini, a Dartmouth campus minister, who greeted me when I arrived 15 minutes before the service began. (One thing about outdoor services in the winter, there aren’t many early birds.)

AQ, as it’s known, sits on a hill above the street that goes around Occom Pond in Hanover. Along with sanitizer gel, a table set up on the edge of the driveway included an ample supply of hand warmers.

“I didn’t anticipate being outside in the dead of winter,” Murphy said, with a laugh. Having grown up in Lowell, Mass., he’s endured his share of New England winters, but Sunday morning Mass outdoors in January and February takes it to another level.

In the summer and fall, AQ’s Sunday morning services attracted 50 to 70 people. When the weather turned colder and the pandemic still showed no signs of letting up, Murphy checked in with his parishioners.

The consensus seemed to be, “if you have it outside, we’ll come,” Murphy said.

It was just fine with him. Due to the college’s strict rules on gatherings during the pandemic, if AQ wanted to continue with in-person services, staying outdoors was the only option.

By my count, last Sunday was the 38th consecutive week that AQ has held an outdoor Mass. This winter, the turnout has remained strong with 30 or so people coming out each Sunday morning.

“It’s encouraging to see so many folks, and especially the consistency,” Costantini said. “We are still able to have a prayerful experience as a community.”

In a nod to students’ nocturnal habits, AQ, which was founded in 1953, has long offered an 11 a.m. start time for Sunday Mass. AQ also continues to hold an outdoor service at 4 p.m., which tends to draw a smaller crowd of mostly students.

I heard about the outdoor Sunday services from Edward Bradley, a retired Dartmouth Classics professor and a friend of Murphy’s. At least until he’s vaccinated, Bradley is livestreaming Mass and chatting with Murphy by phone.

After a Sunday morning service in late January, where the temperature topped out at 18 degrees, Murphy reported that it was “perhaps the shortest sermon of his entire pastoral experience — little more than two minutes in length,” Bradley said.

For the most part, the weather on Sunday mornings this winter has cooperated. No Nor’easters, blustery winds or ice storms have disrupted plans.

“I’ve prayed a lot,” Murphy he said.

Last Sunday morning, parishioners were greeted by a deep blue sky. Bright sunlight danced off icicles hanging from AQ’s pitched roof.

A small plane buzzed overhead, temporarily drowning out the service’s first reading. “You learn to adapt,” said Murphy, who on an earlier Sunday had to contend with the beeping sound of an oil delivery truck, backing up to a nearby sorority house.

From a wooden pulpit outside AQ’s front door, Murphy used the first Sunday of Lent to remind people that spring was only a month or so away.

Lent is “about more than just giving things up,” said Murphy, who has sworn off Lou’s doughnuts for the 40 days before Easter. “It is important to be hopeful and joyful.”

With the pandemic — and the suffering it has caused — about to enter Year 2, that’s not always easy for many people. But after listening to Murphy, it was hard not to walk away with a smile.

Like any priest who considers himself a New Englander, Murphy found a way to inject his favorite team into a five-minute sermon about springtime being the season for optimism.

“Even though I’m not expecting much from the Red Sox,” Murphy said, “I can still hope.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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