It's Parish against Parish
By Bella English
March 7, 2004
It's an unseemly scene that is being repeated throughout the Archdiocese of Boston: Parish groups are getting together to basically vote one of their fellow churches off the island. Tomorrow is the deadline that Archbishop Sean O'Malley has set for a list of parishes to be closed. The list is coming from the churches themselves. It's a good thing that the laity has at least token involvement, but in the end, the process is pitting parish against parish.
Here's what has happened in one local cluster of churches, in Canton, Stoughton and Sharon. After two other meetings, a final vote was taken, with the result a 15-3 recommendation to close Our Lady of the Rosary in Stoughton. The three dissenting votes came, of course, from the three representatives of Our Lady of the Rosary. The 15 in favor were cast by the representatives of the five other parishes at the meeting.
Our Lady of the Rosary has a large population of parishioners with modest incomes; it also serves a community of Brazilians, with Portuguese as their first language. In other words, it doesn't have a lot of clout. It will be interesting to see how O'Malley, who has spent much of his life among poor immigrants, reacts to the vote. The five other churches in the cluster are Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon; St. Gerard Majella and St. John's in Canton; and St. James and Immaculate Conception in Stoughton.
The recent meetings and votes are the result of a mandate by O'Malley that each cluster recommend a first and second choice for closure. Battered by the priest sexual abuse scandal, which is costing the archdiocese $85 million in settlements, and facing a decline in priests, parishioners and donations, the archdiocese has ordered a sweeping consolidation of parishes. The cluster recommendations will be reviewed by archdiocesan vicars, then the five regional bishops, and finally O'Malley, who plans to announce in April which parishes will close.
The Rev. Thomas Bouton, administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary, did not return calls seeking comment. But some of those present at the meeting described the reaction from that parish as one of disbelief and grief. Apparently, the people at Our Lady had spent the entire week before the vote researching why they should be allowed to remain open, but those arguments were not allowed to be aired.
John Hynes, head of the parish council at St. Gerard's, was deeply disturbed by what he saw. "I believe that because we have employed a grossly flawed process that was imposed on us, we have an outcome in our cluster that is exactly the outcome that O'Malley would not want . . . which is closing the poor parish with minorities," says Hynes, who notes that the Stoughton church's Brazilian parishioners travel from all over the Boston area. "In some ways, this is an opportunity to go back to O'Malley and say this is what happens when you put this kind of process in place."
Hynes is right. This painful process is forcing Catholics, in effect, to sentence one of their own to death.
As for Hynes, he wishes he could take back his vote. "Many of us picked Our Lady of the Rosary because we had the impression that it was in difficult financial straits, that there was a debt there." After the vote, he says, he learned that wasn't the case, but that church representatives were not allowed to make their pitch. Hynes was recently voted chairman of the Boston Voice, a newly created archdiocesan-level Voice of the Faithful affiliate. He also has been chairman of a task force on church closings for the Voice, a lay organization that formed during the sexual abuse crisis.
Presiding over the Sharon-Stoughton-Canton closure meetings was the Rev. Robert Bullock of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon. He won't talk about the process, but his own parish, as the only Catholic church in Sharon, is seemingly safe. As convener of the cluster meetings, Bullock insisted that a vote be taken on the number one choice, but he skipped the second question required by the archdiocese: if you had to close a second, which would it be?
An earlier, informal vote had mentioned St. Gerard Majella in Canton as a possible number two choice, an odd one since its finances are among the healthiest in the cluster, as are its weekly attendance and collections, baptisms, funerals, weddings and religious education classes. (On one weekend in February, 1,120 people attended Mass and offered $6,776.) It has no debt and a contingency fund for maintenance and renovation.
Moreover, it is perhaps the most vibrant of the bunch, with more than 700 students in religious education, a renowned summer "Kids Camp" and youth ministry outreach programs at Father Bill's Place in Quincy, home-building projects in Kentucky and a soup kitchen at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. Its priest, the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, was outspoken during the early phases of the church's sex-abuse scandal.
Hynes says he knows some parishes must close for economic and demographic reasons, but he takes issue with the process. "There's the illusion of inclusion by the lay people, but it's a sham." He also objects to the rush -- he doesn't think there has been time to do the job properly.
If he had to vote again, Hynes would choose Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon over Our Lady of the Rosary. "There is no law that says you have to have a Catholic church in every town, and in fact, we don't have a Catholic church in every town in our archdiocese," he says. Attendance at Our Lady of Sorrows is about half that of St. Gerard's, according to archdiocesan statistics. Also, Hynes says, because it has the most poor people and a significant Brazilian community, Our Lady of the Rosary should be given preferential treatment, in keeping with what he feels is Catholic philosophy.
In another area cluster, Weymouth's five Catholic churches initially decided not to participate in a closure vote, saying none of the churches wanted to put itself above the others.
"Doesn't everyone have the same love for their church?" asks the Rev. Ronald Coyne, of St. Albert's. But they finally took a vote, to be released today, instead of having a decision imposed on them. "We all feel it is a terrible position to be put in," says Coyne. "We feel very strongly that all five parishes are very, very vibrant, given any criteria."
Whatever happens to area parishes, it's evident that the reconfiguration process can be a ham-fisted, insensitive way of handling a sensitive, heart-breaking issue.
Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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