Anger Sends Parishioners Elsewhere
Many Choosing Church under Archdiocese of Worcester

By Erica Noonan
Boston Globe
August 1, 2004

Today not only marks the last service at St. Mary's, it also marks the last time its parishioners will worship as a group in the same community.

With two of Marlborough's four Catholic churches shutting their doors for good this month, dozens of congregants say they intend to sever their ties with the Archdiocese of Boston.

About 90 Marlborough families have registered to become members of St. Bernadette in Northborough, which operates under the Archdiocese of Worcester. Hundreds more are expected to join when St. Ann's closes its doors on Aug. 29, parishioners say.

"Many of us are being exiled out of our church and our community," said longtime St. Ann parishioner Denis Denommee. "It was never about the bricks; it was about the people we had. it was like a Super Bowl team -- the mix was exactly right."

Archdiocesan officials had expected most St. Ann and St. Mary parishioners to simply transfer their allegiance to the city's largest church, Immaculate Conception, or the smaller, southside church, St. Matthias.

But the forced closures of two well-attended, financially secure churches have created a deep well of bitterness against church leaders. The snub of the Boston Archdiocese is meant to send a message, angry parishioners said.

"If the true mission of the Archdiocese of Boston was to rebuild the church, then this was not the solution. This is quashing and killing a faith community," said longtime St. Ann's parishioner and Eucharistic minister Donna Coffin. "I feel like the Boston Archdiocese ripped out a part of my life that I don't know if I can get back."

St. Ann's Italiante chapel will remain open as a worship space for Portuguese- and Spanish-language Masses, but St. Mary's spacious sanctuary and school building will likely be sold.

Its locks have already been changed, the classrooms and offices largely cleaned out. The altar, crucifixes, and stained glass windows will stay put until Immaculate Conception decides whether to move them into its own sanctuary.

Many St. Ann and St. Mary parishioners say they are disgusted by the elimination of their parishes, and the dismissal of the Franciscan Friars who operated St. Ann for the past 90 years. When priests from Immaculate Conception came to say a July 18 Mass at St. Ann's, a handful of parishioners left the church in protest. Others, including Coffin, wept throughout the ceremony.

"I sobbed all during that Mass," she said. "I felt that we wanted to have as many Masses led by the friars as we can. We have them for such a short time."

Immaculate Conception, nevertheless, remains prepared to welcome displaced Marlborough Catholics, according to a note on the church's website, signed by Father Michael MacEwen.

"You are being asked to follow our Lord wherever He is leading you," the letter read. "We may even come to see that our church has been strengthened by this process, and our faith deepened."

MacEwen did not return a call seeking comment for this story, but the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said church officials were not surprised by the defection of parishioners to the Worcester Archdiocese.

"People in Marlborough are very, very angry and made their strong feelings about the closing of the parishes heard," said Coyne. "Everyone was aware that there would be fallout and it was something that could not be avoided.

"The most important thing is that they continue their faith," he said. "I feel it's a good thing that they aren't leaving the Catholic Church."

Ted Rabidou, a longtime St. Ann parishioner whose grandparents helped build the church, said he can't bring himself to switch allegiances while his beloved parish is still open, but by September he expects to be attending Mass regularly in Northborough.

He said the Boston Archdiocese had failed in its efforts to welcome displaced Catholics.

"Father Steve [of St. Bernadette's] is doing a better job of healing us than any pastor in this town," Rabidou said. "He's been very understanding, and made us feel comfortable and at ease."

The Northborough church has welcomed some of the children from St. Mary/St. Ann religious education programs and the several dozen teenagers in its Teen Life program, Rabidou said.

More parishioners on the outer edges of the Boston Archdiocese may leave in protest as more local parishes close this summer and fall, said Bernard Swain, a consultant who worked with several church clusters, including Marlborough's, as they made their closing recommendations.

Many designated "welcoming" churches simply haven't done enough outreach to bring in entire communities of displaced Catholics, Swain said.

"If a family's house burns down, the family doesn't disperse; they just need a new place to live," he said. "The [closing] process has alienated a lot of people, and many of them have so little confidence in the management of the archdiocese they would rather live as Catholics under some other administration."

Denommee said he and other parishioners plan to make the best out of this painful chapter. Nearly 500 St. Mary and St. Ann members attended a get-to-know-you reception at St. Bernadette last month.

There were so many familiar faces in that unfamiliar church hall that day, Denommee said, that "it did feel like home. We were all there."


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