Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son
By Peter Manseau
Free Press, New York, 2006
pp 169 - 171

CITY ON A HILL

Roxbury: To most priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. news of an assignment there would have been received as a rebuke. To Bill, it sounded perfect. After four years working in relatively peaceful parishes on the edge of the suburbs, he sought permission from Cardinal Cushing to begin an experimental ministry in the heart of the most troubled part of the city. As odd a request as it would have seemed, Cushing was getting used to it by then — not too long before, he had granted a similar petition, sending Bill's old seminary buddy. George Spagnolia. to oversee the school at St. Francis de Sales. Cushing agreed to Bill's proposal with one condition: Father Manseau would officially be stationed at another parish in Roxbury, both to keep a roof over the young radical's head, and to ensure that his superiors could keep an eye on him.

Bill's new church, All Saints, was on Roxbury's Fort Hill, a rise of crooked city streets topped with a stone watchtower commemorating the Revolutionary War fort that had been erected on that spot in 1775. It was now home to another revolution: with its abandoned buildings and home costs lowered by the highest crime rate in the city, Fort Hill was becoming Boston's gathering place for hippies, Black Panthers, and other '60s fringe groups. Most conspicuously. the street leading to the tower, Fort Avenue Terrace, had been claimed by a loose association of dropouts and musicians from the Cambridge folk scene. In Roxbury they called themselves the Fort Hill Community, which before long was a commune of fifty or so — a dozen couples, a score of towheaded hippie kids — who lived on next to nothing hut managed to renovate four falling-down Victorians within a couple of years. The Hill People. as they also called themselves. had started as a utopian experiment but soon turned into something of a cult, led by a rail-thin folkie turned nihilist guru-god named Mel Lyman. In their alternative paper, Avatar, the Hill People mostly published Lyman's messianic musings and screeds:

I am going to burn down the world
I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone
I am going to shove hope up your ass
I am going to turn ideals to shit
I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble
and then I am going to burn the rubble
and then I am going to scatter the ashes
and then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is...

So much for peace and love. Such rants made the Hill People few friends in the black community that surrounded them. Lyman's followers patrolled Fort Avenue Terrace through the night, every night, and elsewhere on the Hill teams of Black Panthers could often be seen doing the same. Many of the commune's neighbors already lived in rubble and ashes, thank you very much, and they didn't need some Harvard Square banjo player taking over their streets and shoving their hope aside.

Nor did the presence of the Hill People do much for the reputation of the neighborhood's few other white residents, living not far from the watchtower in another monument to Roxbury's long-ago Yankee past. On this hill covered with the broken shells of empty apartment buildings, the All Saints rectory occupied a grand residence that had formerly served as home to the governor of Massachusetts. A mansion large enough for the family and staff of the state's chief executive, it was now home to barely a handful of priests.

The clerics at All Saints generally kept their distance from Lyman and his gang. On Bill's single foray into the commune, for the parish census, he wandered into one of the buildings and found a dozen or so hippies crowded into a dark room, staring out at him as if he were a ghost. They already had a stand-in for God in their leader Mel (thus spoke the Avatar: "Mel Lyman is the Truth and the Life and if we express the truth it is because of Mel Lyman and it is Mel Lyman"). A decade later. Mel would be dead at age forty, but at the time the Hill People believed he was immortal, so they didn't have much use for priests.

The feeling was mutual, but that was a fact easily overlooked by the rest of Fort Hill's inhabitants, who couldn't help but notice that white men claiming godliness — priests or hippies, what did it matter? — had the nicest homes around...

Mel Lyman