Parishioners in Massachusetts vow to continue their 11-year sit-in and save their church from closure

Church closures are a fact of life for Catholics across America

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The Independent US

It was bad enough that the Archdiocese of Boston had included their church, with its full pews and healthy finances, among the 70 it was eliminating in the name of streamlining. Worse was how, when the moment came, they broke a promise to let the parishioners stay put for just a few extra days. To say goodbye.

“They came in under the cover of darkness, they ransacked the place and then they changed the locks,” parishioner Jon Rogers recalled, pointing to outlines on the brick walls of the main sanctuary where statues used to watch over the congregation. “The Blessed Mother was there, and Joseph over here, both gone.”

It’s hard to believe, even for him, that this was back in October 2004. Had the folk from the Catholic Archdiocese in Boston, 20 miles north of the town, showed just a fraction more forbearance – or locked the doors a bit more securely – they may have spared themselves a whole lot of aggravation. Nearly 11 years of it, in fact.

From that day until now the St Frances Xavier Cabrini church in the picturesque seaside town of Scituate has been under occupation by its own parishioners who refuse to see it closed. And that doesn’t mean their dropping by on and off, or holding the occasional lay Sunday service. No, someone from this most stubborn of flocks has been here every minute since. That’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No breaks, not even in winter blizzards.

It is act of defiance without parallel. Church closures have become a fact of life for Catholics across the United States – the Archdiocese of New York is merging or closing a third of its parishes – and protests and occupations are commonplace. But none has matched the battle of St Frances of Scituate, where a confessional is now a bedroom for the night shift and this year’s Easter service attracted 800 worshippers.

Fuelled by a shared sense of betrayal and fury – and a belief that the Archdiocese wants to sell the prime 30-acre church property, a stone’s throw from Cape Cod Bay, to help pay for sexual abuse claims filed against it – the squatters’ rebellion may be running out of legal leeway, however. Appeals to a Vatican court to overturn the closure order have so far failed, and now the Archdiocese has sued in court for their eviction.

In May a Massachusetts judge found against the parishioners and gave them until 5 June to get out of the church. After barely meeting a deadline to file an appeal – the group says it has spent in the region of $100,000 (£64,000) on legal fees so far – that order to vacate was stayed twice, most recently by an appellate judge in Boston last Wednesday. A final ruling could come from the same appeals court any day now.

Mary Elizabeth Carmody, who is the lawyer for the group, called the Friends of Frances X Cabrini, told The Independent that even a defeat in the appellate court would not stop them fighting on, taking the case to the Supreme Judiciary Court of Massachusetts and, if necessary, even to the US Supreme Court. 

But it won’t be an easy road for the Friends, even assuming the stay allowing them continue the vigil remains in place. At every hearing so far: “It’s been me against five lawyers of the Archdiocese,” Ms Carmody said. “It can feel very David and Goliath.” 

But she says she remains confident that right is on their side. Central to their case is the contention that the civil courts should not be involved in the dispute at all and that it is a matter only for canonical law. “The civil courts should not be interposing themselves in these circumstances.” She also accuses the Archdiocese of trying to violate her clients’ first amendment rights to free exercise of religion.

For its part, the Archdiocese has declined to comment, citing the continuing legal process. Those running the round-the-clock vigil, with a sign-up sheet pinned up in the foyer, offer plenty of analysis, of course, but more emotional than legalistic.

Maryellen Rogers, Jon’s wife, questions the very notion that the church, built in 1960, belongs to the Archdiocese, never mind the deeds or title documents to that effect submitted to the courts. “This is the only spiritual home I’ve known. When we gave our hard-earned money to the collection plate, we weren’t giving it to the Archdiocese of Boston or to the Vatican in Rome. We were giving it to our church. We, the people in the community, built this church ourselves. We donated the land.”

Her husband, who has a financial planning business, concurred. “My whole life I have heard my pastor tell me from the altar that this is your church.”  The lead plaintiff in their court filings, Mr Rogers has come to regard the Archdiocese with undisguised contempt. “They are the dark overlords and we are the serfs,” he said. “You will pay, pray and obey, that is what you will do. Oh no we won’t!”

There is pride that they have survived, even prospered, as they have. The lay services, sometimes accompanied by musicians, are mostly led by women in their group. They can’t hold funerals or marriages, but every Sunday service includes what Mr Rogers calls a “mirror of a Mass” complete with “body-of-Christ” hosts that have been blessed on the sly by bona fide priests who are supporting the vigil. “It drives the Archdiocese nuts. If they found who the priests were they would crucify them.”

Brenda Sportack, 67, who came in to hold the fort for a two-hour shift last Thursday afternoon, said there are solutions the church could consider, like asking St Frances to share a priest with another parish. “I don’t see anything wrong with sharing priest among churches,” she said, complaining that compromise is not in the Archdiocese’s lexicon. “They are like a stubborn grandfather who can never admit to being wrong, ever. They won’t even meet us halfway.” That has included the Church rejecting out of hand a proposal by the Friends that they be allowed to purchase the church themselves.

But what really makes them seethe is the notion that the Archdiocese has to sell this land to meet the multimillion-dollar compensation claims for victims of abuse by its own priests. “We are dollar bills in the pews,” complained Patricia McCarthy, 72, a retired teacher, who had an earlier Thursday shift.

 “They abused the children and now they are stealing from us to pay for their crimes,” Mr Rogers declared, the anger welling. “Well not from us, not here. This is bullshit.”

Nothing, meanwhile, is more important to them than keeping the vigil going. To keep the stalwarts comfortable there are easy chairs in the church foyer, wi-fi and cable television. On a table lies a jigsaw. When it’s done it will show an image of cherubic children and a line from Matthew 7:7. “Knock and the door will be opened to you.”

If the Archdiocese keeps winning in court, that soon won’t be so.

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