They See Open Churches but Find Closed Doors
Lay Group in Weymouth Looks for a Home
By Bella English
July 29, 2004
WEYMOUTH -- There's a lot of white hair and polyester in the parish hall at St. Albert the Great on a recent night. They've baked brownies and brewed coffee. They open and close their meeting with a prayer. They describe themselves as devout Catholics, the ones who fill the pews and the plates. But a month from now they may have no Catholic church in which to meet.
The Weymouth Voice of the Faithful chapter, which meets at St. Albert's, will be without a home as of Sept. 1, when the church's doors are scheduled to close for good. The other four Weymouth parishes have so far refused to adopt the group, despite the archdiocese's promise that all activities of churches that close will be offered a home in neighboring parishes.
Last spring, St. Albert's was selected by the other four churches as the one in Weymouth to close in a controversial reconfiguration plan promulgated by the Archdiocese of Boston. It is among 65 churches that will be shuttered by year's end. Archbishop Sean O'Malley has deemed the closings necessary because of declining church attendance, financial problems, the poor condition of many buildings, and a shortage of priests. Although St. Albert's is a healthy church by any measure -- high attendance, no debt, impeccable building and grounds -- it was selected by its brethren, and O'Malley upheld the choice, saying Weymouth can no longer support five churches.
Although O'Malley has said all the activities of a closing parish will be transferred to another church, there seems to be a silent "but" clause. Yes, religious education classes, a health ministry, and the softball and hockey teams will be welcomed at other Weymouth parishes. But not Voice of the Faithful, at least not for now.
Cardinal Bernard Law, at the height of the church's sexual abuse crisis, decreed that Voice of the Faithful chapters formed after October 2002 could no longer meet on church property; Law's successor, O'Malley, endorsed the ban. But the St. Albert's chapter, which had formed a few months earlier, was grandfathered in.
The chapter was one of the earliest and remains one of the most active in the Boston area, drawing members from all over the South Shore. The lay group was formed from outrage and grief over the sexual abuse scandal; it offers support to victims and "priests of integrity." It also seeks to give more voice to the laity, with members questioning the hierarchy -- some for the first time.
"For those who are not satisfied with the way the church has been going, it's a great place to be heard," says George Kyller, 70, a retired house painter who is president of the St. Albert's Voice of the Faithful. He has asked the pastors of the other four Weymouth parishes -- Immaculate Conception, St. Francis Xavier, St. Jerome, and Sacred Heart -- to offer the group a new home. All said no, citing the ban issued by the archdiocese, according to Kyller.
He followed up with a certified letter but got no response. He also invited the four pastors to attend a recent Voice meeting, but none came. The empty chairs at the front of the room, each bearing a name tag, told the story. "Father Miceli." "Father Wyndham." "Father Sullivan." The pastors -- the Rev. Paul Miceli of Immaculate Conception, the Rev. Thomas Wyndham of St. Jerome, and the Rev. Eugene Sullivan of St. Francis Xavier -- never responded to the invitation. (The Rev. Daniel Riley of Sacred Heart told Kyller he could not make the meeting because of a vacation but promised to attend the next one.)
At last week's meeting, when Kyller brought up the issue of finding a home -- "Where are we going to go after we close?" -- someone in the audience of 200 shot back: "We're not closing, George!" Indeed, St. Albert's raised $35,000 in the first few weeks of a legal fund drive and has hired an attorney to file civil and canon appeals to keep the church open. The parish is working feverishly to save itself, holding rallies, prayer vigils, and a children's crusade, and writing letters to the archdiocese, including a recent one from the pastoral council with a proposal. Instead of the archdiocese selling the entire St. Albert's property, which would raise approximately $1.7 million, the council recommended that the church remain open while selling off a parcel of land -- and that the four other parishes also sell off unused or excess property to help raise the $1.7 million.
Father Ron Coyne, pastor at St. Albert's, sat quietly in the crowd the night of the Voice meeting. He spoke only when Kyller mentioned that two Weymouth churches -- a Unitarian Universalist and a Church of the Nazarene -- had offered free space for the Voice chapter. Coyne told the group that moving out of a Catholic church would hurt the group because members would lose the Mass announcements and church bulletins that are helpful in getting their messages out. "I feel deep down inside that's what the [archdiocese] authorities know will happen," he told the audience. "That's why we want to have this activity taken over by another Catholic parish in Weymouth."
Coyne, 56, welcomed the Voice chapter when it first formed. "I like it because they're Catholic people who have a need to talk about the vital issues in their lives and the life of the church, and where else are they going to go to talk about it?" He said that the members should be allowed to meet on church property, "which in most cases is property they've paid for, built, and invested in spiritually, financially, emotionally, and physically. We should be welcoming people who are so invested in the church." In fact, he says, the Voice chapter would enhance the membership of any church that took it in: That's what happened at St. Albert's. "It's a place to meet, in our hall, and a spiritual home that has drawn people from all over the South Shore, not just to VOTF but to our church."
But Coyne has heard the criticism from more conservative quarters: Voice members have no respect for authority. They can't be trusted. They're troublemakers. Indeed, Miceli told Kyller he thought that Voice was negative, and he didn't approve of some of its speakers, including David France, author of "Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal." The book characterizes as ineffective Miceli's handling of pedophile priest John Geoghan.
In response to a question from the Globe, Bishop Richard Lennon, O'Malley's assistant, said he can't demand that a neighboring parish take the Voice chapter if the pastor doesn't want it. According to a spokesman for the archdiocese, Lennon believes "it's up to the pastors in the area to allow the chapter to move in." But would he encourage them to do so? "That's a speculative question," says the spokesman, Rev. Christopher Coyne. He says he knows of no parishes that have agreed to adopt a Voice chapter from a closing church.
The Rev. Eugene Sullivan of St. Francis Xavier was the only priest who returned phone calls from the Globe; the others were said to be on vacation. Sullivan, who initially rejected Voice, said yesterday that because of Lennon's comments he may reconsider after St. Albert's actually closes. "A lot of people from here belong, and if our lay people felt it . . . met the needs of our church, we certainly would consider it," he said.
John Hynes, an official of the Boston Area Voice of the Faithful Council, an umbrella group, says he doesn't believe "for a minute" that the archdiocese is the reason St. Albert's chapter can't find a space. "[The pastors] just don't want it there," says Hynes. "They didn't want it at their church before St. Albert's was closing, and they don't want it after it closes."
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