Church Closings Difficult to Fathom

By Alan Lupo
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
February 29, 2004

On Revere Street in Revere, a few blocks down from the long-shuttered St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church and just a few yards from the still vibrant St. Anthony's church complex, there is a plaque standing firm in what passes for a small piece of yard in front of a three-story house at the intersection of Elmwood Street.

But for the plaque, you would not notice the house any more or less than you would any structure. On the front door is an American flag decal asking that "God Bless America," and under that, one of those "wanted" posters featuring Osama bin Laden. It's the plaque that draws one's attention.

"The first Mass of the Italian Roman Catholic Parish of St. Anthony of Padua," it reads, "was celebrated here by Fr. Canio DeBonis assisted by Benjamin Fucillo here in this building owned by Carmine Pierni on Aug. 27, 1905."

The symbolism on just that stretch of Revere Street speaks volumes about the history and current condition of the Catholic Church hereabouts. By 1905, just short of a century ago, the Catholic Church was already long established as a major player in the affairs of Eastern Massachusetts, and its impact would grow enormously over the next 60 or more years. Yet, now, the Boston Archdiocese plans to close a fair number of its 357 parishes, 73 of which are in the North region. St. Theresa's was one of 16 North region parishes closed since 1985.

While there's much truth to the clich that almost nothing stays the same, the expected shutdown of Catholic churches is a phenomenon overwhelming not only to parishioners but also to non-Catholics who, having grown up here, could not ignore the widespread influence of the archdiocese.

As a little kid, I used to listen intently in the early morning to the small radio in our parlor and pray silently for the "No school, all schools, all day" announcement in the case of bad weather. It turned out that I wasn't alone in engaging in the act of prayer, albeit for different goals. Preceding the weather report was a fellow with the raspy voice of a Southie longshoreman. His name was Richard Cardinal Cushing, as they used to say, with the title in the middle.

He said the rosary every morning. At first, he scared me. I was a 7-year-old Jewish kid. What did I know about raspy-voiced priests or the rosary? But I figured both this man and what he was saying were pretty important, and as I grew older, I came to understand the pervasive power of the Catholic Church. Our local culture, including our politics, was often mingled with the attitudes and personas of the archdiocese.

In the Jewish settlements of such places as Shirley Avenue in Revere, Suffolk Square in Malden, and Shirley Street in Winthrop, there was respect, grudging at times, for the power amassed by the archdiocese and the influence it had in this region.

It was Cushing's predecessor, William Cardinal O'Connell, who had much to do with building that power and exercising that influence. He ran the archdiocese from 1911 to 1944, an era that witnessed an increase in both churches and parochial schools. He was a man perhaps less loved than respected or even feared.

"O'Connell early dropped his youthful liberalism," wrote journalist William Shannon in his 1963 book, "The American Irish."

"By the time he became cardinal and thereafter," Shannon wrote," his influence on all social and economic questions was uniformly conservative."

That came to mean, for example, that were you, no matter what your religion, going to buy a birth-control device, you had better ask your druggist for it in a very low voice, and he was well advised to hand the package to you with some degree of subtlety. The increasingly Catholic Legislature sat up and listened when O'Connell spoke on public issues. Vatican II changed much of that mind-set, and recent controversies, such as the abuse scandal and the current fight over gay marriage, suggest a greater diversity of opinion in the parishes.

It was Cushing who, with his backslapping and working-stiff manner, managed to bridge the chasm between the Catholic Church and other elements of society. To put it bluntly, we Jews thought Cushing was a mensch, and he seemed to like us, too. That connection became increasingly important as Catholic and Jewish street kids began to wean themselves from generations of bigotry and mistrust.

So potent had it become that when people said, "The Church," everyone knew they weren't referring to any of the many Protestant denominations.

Now, this Church, which had to struggle against the extraordinary bigotry of nativists to survive, this Church, which grew to assert itself in the halls of public power, this Church whose members became priests, pols, judges, doctors, utility workers, cops, firefighters, and, oh yeah, an American president, now this Church must save money by closing parishes.

But the betting in this non-Catholic corner is that the Church will endure, as that somewhat weather-beaten plaque attests.


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