In the past two years, Dr. Arthur “Chip” Gonsalves has bought a church for an evolving community organization, rehabilitated a 50,000 square foot building in downtown Lowell, purchased a Belmont Avenue home known as the “castle,” and with wife Crystal, adopted two children. Additionally, as a vascular surgeon, he maintains a full medical practice and is on call every other day and weekend.
Gonsalves wants to sure that Crystal’s role is recognized as well. She is the “on site” Belmont Avenue renovator and home schools their children. She is a true partner in their community endeavors. Their new organization is named Fusion, and its new home is just weeks away from opening at the former Jeanne D’Arc Church on Fourth Avenue in the Pawtucketville neighborhood of Lowell.
Chip and Crystal have been married for 18 years. As of 1998, they had been living happily in Florida after Chip had finally completed his 15 years of preparation to be a vascular surgeon. A vascular surgeon is trained in the diagnosis and management of diseases the vascular system, specifically, arteries and veins. Gonsalves was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, grew up in Andover and was the first in his family to attend college.
Gonsalves describes the voice that changed his family’s life as “very clear.” He also wants to let you know that he doesn’t hear voices every day or hear audibly from God. He does feel that he had spiritual guidance from above. The near audible words he heard were “go to Lowell.” He explains, “I felt I had to follow that direction. It was a faith journey.”
Crystal “more than stood by me” and also would eventually be rewarded with “the satisfaction of service,” as described by Chip. Within a year, Arthur and Crystal had left Florida. Returning to the Merrimack Valley, Gonsalves was able to establish a new medical practice affiliated with Lawrence General Hospital and Holy Family in Methuen.
The path from there started with a visit Crystal made to the Lincoln School area in Lowell. According to Gonsalves, Crystal found herself at a neighborhood park and “met 20 or so children, mostly Cambodian.” Through the association of these children and their families, Chip and Crystal set out to form a community that would respond to the needs of these and other children and youth.
“These kids that we met,” recalled Gonsalves, “all of them had brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and it was really a beachhead into the Cambodian community.” In the era of the late nineties, Cambodian families were dealing with many transitional language and social issues. The structure and support provided by the Gonsalves’ was an alternative to gangs and idle time on the street.
Gonsalves called the youth group, Jesus Samurai Knights, which Gonsalves refers to as “JSK.” Chip, Crystal and other volunteers provided mentoring, meals, social, athletic events and elective Bible studies.
“Over ten years we grew from 20 to over 300 young people and their families. We would have a Tuesday night get together with kids and volunteers. We would bring food and the kids would be involved. They would cook. It was a breaking of bread together. It proved to be inspirational for all of us. The core of JSK was always the Cambodian community, primarily young men. We felt, if they had another place to go and had another choice in life, well that was the idea. One of the things I found was that kids had limited English skills. There were academic challenges and lack of a sense that they could avail themselves of school and college. We had successes over time. They were first generation kids. Those kids have assimilated. It’s quite different today with the next generation and so are the needs.”
The youth organization changed over time and Gonsalves saw a need that required a more permanent home base. Early one morning he was browsing through real estate listings and saw a web site listing for the former Jeanne D’Arc Church at Fourth Avenue in Pawtucketville. The church, to the frustration of the neighborhood, had been closed ten years ago by the Catholic Archdiocese and was for sale. It was vacant and threatened by vandalism and water damage. Gonsalves saw a need for a tangible place for community activities to happen.
Let’s Buy A Church
Fusion, the new organization, is the evolution of the original group, according to Gonsalves. “The kids have grown up and the needs are different. Fusion is intended to be a community. It’s not about the church itself as a physical place merely, but about a setting for performances, activities and ways to provide things that assist people.” Already, there is a ballet class, a food pantry, and a variety of events are being planned.”
Fusion will open with two November events. The first is an open house on the evening of November 13. The second is the grand opening Fusion worship service on November 22, which will be at 10:30 AM. The public is invited to both events.
The transformation of the church itself is striking. While the stained glass windows and religious icons have been claimed by the Archdiocese, the resulting large new windows allow for ample natural light. There is something illuminating about the change, and in turn, instructive about the new mission. The stage that was closed off in response to diminishing numbers of worshipers has been re-opened to accommodate performances of theater and music. Bench seating has been imported from a temple in Brockton. A state of the art theater audio and lighting system are being installed. A pastor has been engaged to cover faith issues and counselling. How is all of this paid for? The purchase, renovations and operations of the property are paid for largely by the Gonsalves family. Gonsalves himself is owner, laborer and chief of inspiration.
How does he have time to carry on a career and so much more? Gonsalves typical day after work includes supper with Crystal and the children, then a drive across the river to the church. Frequently he brings his children to help. Gonsalves sees it as a good way to spend time but also to inform Rachel, 13, Cassia, 12, and Justus, 10, about the values of friendship, work and community. He acknowledges that recent commitments have been a significant challenge but sites the opening of his Element Care tenanted building downtown and near completion of the church, which he hopes will allow him more family time going forward.
Adding to the Family
From the beginning of the mission, Gonsalves says he has been rewarded in dealing with the Cambodian community. “Our friends in the community are incredibly loyal, cohesive and very family oriented.” Eventually, through this interaction, there would be another rewarding and life changing event. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) was moving one of the families in Gonsalves’ organization towards adoption. Chip and Crystal were asked to adopt Lillyanna, 6, and her brother, Kaythony, age 5. “We had been friends with the entire family,” says Gonsalves. “We discussed it within our own family and everyone agreed. We changed our lifestyle.” It is an open adoption and the children have regular contact with their birth mother and her extended family.
This lifestyle change is also connected with a frightening event following the birth of the Gonsalves’ youngest biological child. Complications at Justus’ birth, including a congenital bleeding disorder threatened Crystal’s life. Her blood pressure had declined to dangerous levels. Due to an existing medical condition, her veins were in the state of collapse. Efforts to insert an intravenous tube, IV, appeared impossible after some 20 tries. Chip watched with increasing anxiety as doctors tried to insert a functioning IV. Finally, he asked to help. On the first try, he was able to thrust a line under her collarbone and to hit a central vein. This allowed over 14 Units of blood to be able to be transfused, which proved life saving. He believes his success was actually based on a dream he recalled in which Crystal’s life was similarly threatened. It gave him confidence in his efforts. Recalling the events, he adds quietly but with emotion, “It wasn’t her time.”
As Arthur and Crystal had always planned to have a large family, the resulting addition of Lillyanna and Kaythony was very much in keeping with their mutual intentions of having a large family of their own. Given the acquisition of the approximately 10,000 square foot residence on Belmont Avenue, their expanded family will have plenty of opportunity to settle in and roam.
Gonsalves was asked the meaning of “initiative” for him and his motivation.
“I think of initiative and I think of the word, courage. To step out of what your normal life experience is and take a shot at something. Maybe it’s something others haven’t done or wouldn’t do. But I wouldn’t say that its risk taking in that sense. I think if you get involved with areas that you have gifts in, then you’ll have the provision that you need to accomplish it. This is very deliberate and methodical. The greatest reward is meeting the need. Sometimes people say, ‘you must have been told, you couldn’t do it.’ Proving other people wrong should never be your motivation. It should always be that you’ve identified a need and you’re doing the work to meet it.”
Whether for their courage or inspiring ability to “meet a need,” Chip and Crystal Gonsalves and Fusion are a welcome addition to the Lowell community.