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A Parish, and Its Faithful, in Limbo

St. Susanna is one of 69 Catholic churches due to close in the Boston area. It's unbearable for those who have tied their lives to the institution.

July 09, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

DEDHAM, Mass. — For 43 years, Mary Giorgio has started her day with a glass of orange juice and a sliver of home-baked cake. She rifles through a closet too full from outings to Filene's department store. She fluffs her short hair -- once golden, now bright white. Then she gets in her car and drives to Mass at St. Susanna Parish.

Giorgio and her late husband, Salvatore, moved to this Boston suburb in 1961, the same year St. Susanna opened less than half a mile from their house. The Giorgios joined the parish before they unpacked all their moving boxes. Mary became a fixture in St. Susanna's women's group, and Salvatore in the men's group.

They went to weekly dances at the church. They had barbecues by their backyard pool for the late Cardinal Richard James Cushing, founding father of St. Susanna. Their daughters Barbara and Lou Ann were confirmed and married at St. Susanna. When Salvatore died four years ago, Mary held his funeral at St. Susanna, and on the anniversary of his death each June, she has sponsored a memorial Mass there.

The parish is Giorgio's spiritual and emotional fulcrum, her social anchor. St. Susanna means so much to her that when she learned the Archdiocese of Boston was going to close the church to save money, Giorgio, 91, let out a shriek of grief.

"I said to myself, please God, if my time is coming, make it happen before the parish closes," she recalled. "I can have a Catholic funeral in any church. But I cannot conceive of myself having the last rites and leaving this world from another parish."

Giorgio loves every nook and cranny of St. Susanna: the shiny, polished floors, the grand wooden crucifix and the trompe l'oeil painting of the Holy Land. She has prayed daily with eight pastors over the years, watching the light dance through twin panels of stained glass that stretch from floor to soaring ceiling over the front entrance.

But her attachment to her parish goes beyond the building, the liturgy or the priests.

After Mass on Mondays, Giorgio walks next door to the rectory to count the weekend collection money, one of her many tasks at the parish. As she lays out stacks of bills in varying denominations, she explains how the impending closure strikes at the very core of her Catholicism.

"It is just part of me. It is a warm feeling, a comfortable feeling, a feeling of being complete," she said. "St. Susanna's is right up on the top of my list of the things that are important to me. There is my family, of course, and then there is St. Susanna's. I have never had that kind of feeling, that sense of belonging, in any other church.

"My faith is closely connected to this parish," she said. "This is where it all comes together for me as a Catholic. I get up in the morning, knowing I am going to St. Susanna's to start the day off right."

Struggling Archdiocese

St. Susanna is one of 69 Boston-area parishes scheduled to close by the end of the year.

Many of the country's 195 dioceses are struggling financially from a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits. The diocese in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday filed for bankruptcy because it faced millions of dollars in claims. With a wary eye toward Boston, where the abuse crisis began more than two years ago, many Catholics around the country are wondering if parish closings will be the next step for them as well.

But Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley has steadfastly insisted that money problems unrelated to the abuse scandal are making the closures necessary.

Officials of the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese said that proceeds from the sale of parish properties, as much as $400 million, would not be used to pay off settlements to sexual abuse victims. Boston recently settled 552 abuse cases for $85 million, and church leaders said the money would come entirely from the sale of the chancery headquarters.

O'Malley said the archdiocese was shutting more than one-sixth of its parishes because of diminishing attendance, declining donations and a dearth of priests.

An archdiocese spokesman, Cullen Buckland, said Wednesday that "on the surface" St. Susanna did not appear to fit those criteria. But, Buckland said, "you need to look at the whole picture here. There are other parishes in that area that could absorb the congregation. Proximity in this circumstance played a role in the decision-making."

His explanation was of scant consolation to Giorgio.

"I just can't conceive how this church could disappear when so many of us are dependent on it," Giorgio said. "I feel that it is my church. I can't conceive how anybody, any hierarchy, could take this away from me, from any of us."

Giorgio's sentiments are shared by many in the 825-family parish. At a recent Mass, Father Stephen Josoma asked worshipers to fill out a brief questionnaire indicating what they planned to do if the parish closed as scheduled. Only 17% said they would join another parish. Many in the remaining 83% said they would stop practicing their Catholic faith altogether.

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