New York Times
January 5, 2009
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
SCITUATE, Mass. — There are sleeping bags in the sacristy at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church and reclining chairs in the vestibule, but no one here gets too relaxed. “Please be ever vigilant!” a sign by the door warns, and the parishioners who have occupied the church since it closed more than four years ago take it as seriously as a commandment.
St. Frances was among dozens of churches that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston decided to close and sell in 2004, not least because of financial turmoil made worse by the abuse scandal in the clergy. But while most churches closed without a fight, parishioners at St. Frances, a brick A-frame on a wooded hill, and at four other churches rebelled.
For 1,533 days, the group at St. Frances has taken turns guarding the building around the clock so that the archdiocese cannot lock them out and put it up for sale. They call it a vigil, but by now it is more of a lifestyle.
“It’s much more of a living 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week faith,” said Margy O’Brien, 78, a parishioner since St. Frances opened in 1960. “My generation of Catholics have paid, prayed and obeyed, but you get to a point where you’ve had it.”
The archdiocese will not provide priests to most of the vigil churches, and it has removed most statues, altar cloths and sacred objects. It changed the locks at St. Frances in October 2004 but unwittingly left a fire door open, an error the parishioners call a miracle.
The archdiocese has not tried to evict the parishioners or shut off the heat and electricity. Three of the five vigil groups have appeals pending with the Vatican, but if the appeals fail, as is likely, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, may run out of patience.
“They can’t go on for infinity,” said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “These have to end at some point, but how, I don’t know.”
In the meantime, some 100 parishioners at St. Frances take turns sitting in the church for hours at a time, including overnight shifts in the sacristy, where the priest once dressed, and the reconciliation room, where confession was heard.
The vestibule serves as their living room, and the sanctuary, with houseplants on the altar and finished jigsaw puzzles on a back pew, as a place to meditate or even walk laps. Bobbie Sullivan, 57, who determined that 19 times around the sanctuary is a mile, said she planned her weeks around a sign-up sheet by the door. Her husband died in 2006, and sleeping alone in the reconciliation room, under an electric blanket, does not bother her.
“It’s warm, it’s pretty, it’s quiet, it’s peaceful,” Ms. Sullivan said of the church, where she passes the time writing cards, quilting and paying bills. “It’s a great place to get your work done.”
The closing of parishes in Boston in 2004 was the leading edge of a wave of closings around the country. In announcing the closings, Archbishop O’Malley said they were brought on by a shortage of priests, dwindling attendance and money problems.
There are now 292 parishes in the archdiocese, down from 357 in 2004, Mr. Donilon said. But the archdiocese is spending $880,000 a year to maintain the five vigil parishes and nine others that it cannot sell yet because of civil suits or appeals to the Vatican.The Council of Parishes, a group that formed to advise the vigil parishes, has helped similar efforts in New York and New Orleans, where two churches have been occupied since October. It also helped parishioners at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Adams, Mass., start a vigil last month. Peter Borré, the group’s leader, said the Boston vigils were “the longest-duration, broadest-based passive resistance movement” ever by American Catholics.
Much of the St. Frances parishioners’ anger comes from the sense that their church was unfairly singled out. Unlike others, it was in good physical condition and financially solvent, said Jon Rogers, 49, a vigil organizer. He and others say they believe the church’s location doomed it. When it closed, the property had an assessed value of $4.4 million.
“We have 30.3 acres of prime coastal realty here,” Mr. Rogers said. “It’s a land grab; they need the money.”
The archdiocese, which in 2005 announced an $85 million settlement with victims of abuse by priests, originally hoped to make some $200 million from the sale of closed parishes. So far, proceeds have fallen well short of that.
St. Frances has stayed in good condition since the vigil started, but other churches are not as lucky. In Everett, an industrial city north of Boston, St. Therese Parish has gone without water or heat since its boiler broke in October and the archdiocese refused to repair it.
The parishioners keeping vigil there — a group of about 35, according to the leaders — sit in pews wrapped in blankets, use a rented portable toilet and collect rainwater for their plants.
“I just don’t want to give in to it,” said Mary Tumasz, 83, who spends several hours a day at St. Therese after attending Mass at another church. “I’m praying and hoping, but it doesn’t look good.”
The other churches with vigils are Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston; St. Jeremiah in Framingham; and St. James the Great in Wellesley.
Many of the St. Frances holdouts describe being transformed from passive Catholics to passionate, deeply involved members of a spiritual community that they say could be a model for the future of the troubled Catholic Church.
“You would think because there are fewer and fewer priests that the various archdioceses would welcome a new configuration,” Mrs. O’Brien said. “Let the lay people do everything but the sacramental.”
Since St. Frances has no priest, parishioners lead services that include everything but consecration of the host. On the Sunday before Christmas, about 50 parishioners attended a service conducted entirely by women, including two who distributed communion. The hosts had been consecrated elsewhere by a priest described by Mr. Rogers’s wife, Maryellen, as “sympathetic.”
Parishioners also hold suppers in the vestibule and meet Tuesdays to say the rosary. They raise money as a nonprofit group, donate to charities and open the church to outsiders seeking comfort or repose.
“Lots of troubled people have come through, and all they need, really simply, is someone to connect to,” said Karen Virginia Shockley, 43, who participates in the vigil with her two teenage sons. “Usually there’s an older person here who will sit down and just listen to you.”
The Rev. Thomas Foley, the archdiocese’s cabinet secretary for parish life and leadership, expressed regret in an interview about the timing and abruptness of the closings. Boston Catholics were already reeling from the abuse scandal, Father Foley said, and the closings were “too much, too soon.”
In an open letter in 2004, Cardinal O’Malley called the closings “the hardest thing I have ever had to do in 40 years of religious life.”
Father Foley said the vigil keepers should “peacefully let go” and “consider that there are welcoming parishes around them that will benefit” from their presence. But members of the St. Frances group said they hoped to meet with Cardinal O’Malley this month and would propose buying the church with donations.
Some parishioners have grown so disenchanted with the Catholic Church hierarchy and so fond of the vigil routine that they cannot imagine returning to the old way.
“I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach,” said Mary Dean, 61, who keeps vigil at St. Frances at least four hours a week. “I’ll always be a Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.”