The thick manila envelope landed in Bob Schwiderski’s mailbox in March. He tore it open — and found something he’d never seen in his 25 years advocating for victims of clergy abuse.

Inside were 20 notes of support from parishioners at a local church. “We love you and hold you in our hearts,” wrote one woman, pledging to devote four masses, 30 rosaries and other prayers to the abused. “I am praying for healing for us all,” another wrote.

Stunned, Schwiderski eventually called the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake and proposed a face-to-face meeting with church members. They invited the vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, and on Thursday night a rare evening of reconciliation unfolded. There was no talk of lawsuits. No priest bashing. No victim blaming. Just people coming together “to try to heal,” church members said.

“Some of us have been digging in the trenches for 25 years and have never had an opportunity to do anything like this,” Schwiderski, state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told parishioners gathered in a chapel at the Church of St. Paul.

“This is huge,” he said. “You’ve got the vicar general and this old war horse on the same stage,” he added with a smile.

As many Minnesota Catholics struggle to reconcile their faith with the revelations of clergy sexual abuse, the gathering provided one grass-roots model to bridge the divide.

The Rev. Tim Norris, who shepherded the project on the church’s end, called it a “small step” to help all parties involved.

“It’s kind of like when something goes wrong in a family, the whole family can be hurt,” Norris said. “We’re trying to bridge those hurts.”

Lachowitzer acknowledged he was “nervous” about coming to such an event, “but I didn’t hesitate.” He is the archdiocese’s point person on priest misconduct, a position he assumed last fall.

“I expected the anger, the pain,” he said, and then like Schwiderski, he joked that even if he got verbally “beat up” he knew he’d still be able to drive home that night.

Unlikely gathering

About 35 parishioners and a half-dozen abuse survivors sat in the pews of the airy chapel, with boxes of Kleenex strategically placed in the front rows near the lectern.

The gathering started with prayer petitions directed at causes not typically addressed from the pulpit. For example:

“For the healing of those hurt by abuse’’ was the first petition. “Lord, hear our prayer,” went the response.

“For repentance for those who caused the abuse” was another. “Lord, hear our prayer … ”

Then came a few hymns, which prompted tense reactions among some survivors. One crossed his arms over his chest. Another rocked nervously.

Schwiderski then walked to the front of the chapel with a large photograph of himself as a young boy pinned to his suit jacket.

“I had already been abused by a Catholic priest by the time this was taken,” he said, pointing to the photo of a wide-eyed little boy. “This was the kid who didn’t know what to do.”

Schwiderski told the group how much he appreciated the words of kindness, as well as other gifts. That included pledges to offer more than 1,000 masses, 600 rosaries and 474 days of fasting and other spiritual gifts for their healing.

Then came the other survivors, one by one, to the front of the chapel, standing in front of the crucifix still draped with Easter whites, sharing their attempts to resurrect their broken psyches after abuse by someone they felt represented God on Earth.

Feeling twice hurt by church

One still-fragile man said he was raped after serving mass as an 11-year-old altar boy, by the parish priest. Another man said he was abused after confession, by his confessor.

Enduring the abuse was one thing, they said. Getting no support from their church, or being told it never happened, magnified the anguish.

And then there’s the public reaction.

“You know what people say when you tell them, ‘I was one of them?’ ” Frank Meuers asked. “Nothing … It feels like abuse all over. That’s why this situation is so unique.”

The testimony was met with respect and few questions. At the end, one parishioner stood up and said, “I would like to hear an apology. I’d love to hear someone up there saying, ‘In hindsight, we made a mistake.’ ”

That apology was soon forthcoming, as Lachowitzer made his way to speak.

“My heart is grieved: my conscience is disturbed,” he said. “I offer you my profound and sincere heartfelt apology.”

Shortly after, the meeting ended. Lachowitzer and Schwiderski embraced.

Unlikely mingling

The social hour afterward brought an unlikely collection of folks to the cookie table. Devout Catholic parishioners. A quiet parish priest. A top archdiocesan official. All mingling, as if it were some ordinary church meeting.

“It’s a lot to process, the pain they’re going through,” said Mark Meuer, a trustee of the church, while surveying the scene. “How do you respond individually and as a church? But it’s good people are here.”

Mary Beth Barbato said meeting people abused by priests was so much more powerful than seeing photos in the media. The stories were heartbreaking, she said.

“I’m just a puddle,” she said, eyes red from tears.

Several church members marveled that their humble outreach gesture had meant so much to survivors.

Meuers, a SNAP member, called the event “a breath of fresh air.”

Schwiderski said the folks at the church were trailblazers, recognizing that abuse victims are not part of any stereotype.

“This tells us that our message is understood,” Schwiderski said. “We are no demons. We’re not trying to destroy the Catholic Church. We’re not about money. The true Catholics are speaking here, and that’s the people in the pews.”

Lachowitzer said he was deeply moved by the evening.

“It bypassed my brain and went straight to my heart,” the vicar general said. He was reminded that even after 50 years, a rape could remain an excruciatingly painful part of a person’s life.

Lachowitzer said he would report back to Archbishop John Nienstedt and his staff about the evenings. He said he believes, as the archdiocese implements new processes for handling abuse complaints, that survivors will play a greater role.

“This builds some relationship that is concrete,” he said. “It’s bridging what has been a schism.”

That bridge will continue to be built. Norris invited his parishioners to create the church’s “next step” in its process of reconciliation.

Said Norris: “I see this as a small baby step along the way in the search to find healing.”