10 of 82 Parishes Fight Archdiocese on Closure Plans

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
August 12, 2004

Despite long odds against success, at least 10 of the 82 parishes that the Archdiocese of Boston plans to close are challenging Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley's decision by attempting canon or civil law appeals, by seeking intervention from local or state officials, or through protests and prayer.

One parish, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, has retained legal help and is nearing a decision to file a civil suit challenging the archdiocese's plan to close the church. At another, St. Anselm in Sudbury, some parishioners want to buy the church building from the archdiocese and establish a new, unsanctioned worshiping community there. A third, St. Jeremiah in Framingham, is trying to get its building declared a historic site, even though it was built in 1958, because the bells were given in memory of Christa McAuliffe, a onetime parishioner who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Parishioners and priests from several churches have met with state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly or his aides in an effort to persuade him to challenge the closings in court, which has been unsuccessful so far.

Yesterday, state Senator Marian Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat whose district includes Dedham, met with Reilly's staff to urge the attorney general to investigate whether the closing of St. Susanna in Dedham violates state laws regulating the use of charitable donations by taking donations to one church for use by others.

Walsh is also circulating for comment draft legislation that would require religious organizations to file annual financial reports like those now filed by nonreligious charitable organizations and that would require charitable organizations, including churches, to report their real estate holdings.

Reilly has tried to lower expectations for his involvement, pledging only that he "will continue to monitor the situation, while acknowledging the limits on government intervention in church affairs," according to his spokesman, Corey Welford.

"The attorney general understands the frustration and anger of members of parish communities facing closure and sympathizes with priests, staff, and parishioners caught in the middle of a situation they did not create," Welford said. "However, the attorney general's authority over charities is specifically limited in the case of religious institutions. That limitation is mandated by the First Amendment's recognition of a separation of church and state."

Many of the efforts to prevent parish closings are being aided by Voice of the Faithful, the national lay Catholic reform movement based in Newton and formed in response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. Voice of the Faithful leaders have scheduled a Mass on Boston Common for 4 p.m. Sunday in response to the parish closings.

Some parishioners have met with O'Malley or his assistant, Bishop Richard G. Lennon; others say they have been unable to get the bishops' attention. The parishes are all planning to file appeals under canon law, first to O'Malley, and then to the pope. Several are exploring civil challenges.

"A lawsuit is a last resort for us, but it's a viable option if all else fails," said Frank Bellini, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Lexington.

Representatives of multiple parishes planning to appeal the closing decisions met with reporters at St. Ignatius Loyola in Newton on Tuesday and expressed frustration with chancery officials. Leaders of each parish believe their churches are viable and that they have grounds for the archdiocese to reverse the decisions to close.

Parishioners said that their letters and calls to church leaders have gone unanswered, that they have been unable to get clear explanations for why their churches were targeted to close, and that they doubt the assertion by church leaders that real estate values were not a factor in the decisions.

"I think this is a land grab," said Gail Trainor, a parishioner at St. Anselm in Sudbury. Parishioners there say their church has no debt, $600,000 in the bank, and a vibrant community of deaf worshipers who are being ignored.

Few parish leaders expect any of their efforts to succeed. But the parishioners say they are determined to try in any way they can.

"We believe if we are heard, they will reverse this decision," said Lorraine Dray, a parishioner at St. Jeremiah in Framingham.

Many are frustrated at the closing of churches whose construction and upkeep they financed.

"Our folks have been extremely loyal, and that's part of the frustration," said Mary Hogan of St. William in Savin Hill. "Now they're finding the very people they trusted don't care whether they live, die, or where they go. It has been so cold, and there is no response, no matter what people have sent."

Peter Borre, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena in Charlestown, said that when he arrived at chancery to deliver a petition calling on the archdiocese to preserve his parish, "I was told to get off the property."

Some parishioners are angry.

"I worry about the younger generation -- first, they see them raping the children, and then they see them stealing our churches -- why would you want to stay?" said Rose Yesu, a parishioner at St. Brendan in Newton, where church property has been rezoned in an effort to make it less attractive for the archdiocese to sell.

The archdiocese said in its newspaper, The Pilot, that it has now announced plans to close 82 parishes, but will also create seven new parishes and retain seven of the church buildings for use for occasional worship services.

The archdiocese says that, despite the anger at some parishes, most of the parish closings are proceeding smoothly. Several parishes, including Sacred Heart in Medford, St. Joseph in Hyde Park, and St. Mary in Marlborough, have already closed.

"The reality is that in almost all of the parishes that are closing, priests and staffers are providing excellent support to their people, and the welcoming parishes are also reaching out to those people and offering help and support and also consolation," said the archdiocesan spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne.

As an olive branch, Coyne also said that the archdiocese will allow Voice of the Faithful affiliates associated with closing parishes to transfer to surviving parishes, if they can find a pastor who agrees to host the group's meetings.

The archdiocese had banned any chapters of the organization formed after October 2002 from meeting on church property, but Coyne said the archdiocese will not use that ban to prevent the relocation of existing chapters.

Voice of the Faithful says that nine of its 45 affiliates in the Archdiocese of Boston meet in parishes slated to close.

Coyne also questioned the group's role in parish closings. "Rather than trying to help the process succeed and try to work with the archdiocese," he said, "the leadership of Voice of the Faithful has aggressively criticized the whole process and has been unwilling to recognize any of the legitimate and good reasons for what we're doing."

Steve Krueger, Voice of the Faithful executive director, said, "The pain of Catholics needs to be acknowledged, and in the response from the institutional church, the words have been there, but the actions to try to heal the wounds have not. The Mass will hopefully create an awareness of the need for healing, and provide some hope in a very painful period."