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Heavens No, Parishioners Won't Go

As Boston Archdiocese starts its cost-cutting measures, Catholics in one suburb are taking to their pews to protest the closure of their church.

September 06, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

WEYMOUTH, Mass. — On the seventh night, they rested.

Sleeping on hard wooden pews and on the floor, about 30 members of St. Albert the Great church spent Saturday night in the 54-year-old Roman Catholic parish rather than see it shut down, as the Archdiocese of Boston has ordered. On Sunday, the vigil that began a week ago continued, as 400 worshipers gathered for a morning prayer service that lacked only a priest to qualify as a Mass.

"We will stay as long as it takes," said Mary Akoury, co-chair of the parish council and one of the organizers of the occupation. "We are taking this one day at a time."

The fight to keep the parish open began in May, when church leaders announced they would close or merge scores of Boston-area parishes.

Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley said the decision had nothing to do with financial troubles caused by the clerical sex abuse scandal that surfaced here 2 1/2 years ago. The archdiocese has agreed to make more than $100 million in settlement payments to victims of clerical sexual abuse.

By mid-summer, the list of parishes to be closed grew to 82, including St. Albert. Closing dates were staggered. The red brick church next to a gardening center in this city 15 miles south of Boston was one of the first scheduled to be closed.

A week ago, after Father Ron Coyne delivered his last homily and gave his keys to a diocesan official, parishioners moved in with sleeping bags, toothbrushes and, in one case, a German shepherd. They hesitate to use terms like "protest," "demonstration, "sit-in" or even "sleep-in," preferring the image of a vigil.

But they have vowed to remain on church premises around the clock and to continue daily prayer services that include communion with stockpiled wafers that previously had been consecrated.

The move thwarted a plan by the archdiocese to lock the doors of St. Albert last week. Still, archdiocese spokesman Father Christopher Coyne, no relation to the parish's former priest, said that under church law St. Albert ceased to exist "as an entity" Sept. 1.

"We are aware that people are remaining in the church in spite of the fact that the parish is now closed," Coyne said in a statement. He said O'Malley was in Rome for meetings at the Vatican and had given instructions to avoid confrontation before he left.

"At this point, representatives of the Archdiocese of Boston will do nothing to exacerbate the situation in the parish church," the church spokesman said. "Our hope is that with patience, prayer and charity, this situation can be resolved as calmly and carefully as possible."

One confrontation is expected to take place Wednesday, when the Superior Court in Boston hears a civil lawsuit from St. Albert parishioners against O'Malley and the archdiocese. Parish member Sharon Harrington, a lawyer who has worked on the petition, said the case turned on a 1909 statute that said the archbishop and the archdiocese were trustees of each parish, not outright owners.

"The bottom line is, we own this church, and he owns it only as a trustee to us, as a fiduciary," she said. "This is a very gutsy legal move. It is cutting edge."

Like dozens of other parishes on the closure list, St. Albert did not appear to fit any of the official criteria for closure.

The parish membership was vibrant, with 4,000 members, including 1,700 families. The parish has no debt, and has more than $200,000 in the bank, said Akoury, the parish co-chair. The building is in fine condition, and only a few years ago added new stained glass windows from Germany at a cost of almost $3,000 per pane.

"Plus we have 5 1/2 acres of undeveloped land in back of the church, which we offered to sell to cover the costs -- and the archdiocese said no," Akoury said.

Philip N. Healy, a retired mechanical engineer who is vice chairman of the prayer vigil, spent three nights at the church before going home to his own bed for a night or two. He then returned to his pew for the rest of the week, a pattern he intended to continue.

"The pews are so narrow you can't turn over," said Healy, 74. "Part of you hangs off."

Parishioner Vin O'Keefe, 73, said he was accused of disruptive snoring in the nights he has spent at St. Albert.

"I've got news for you," he said. "Some of the ladies snore too."

O'Keefe was wearing a St. Albert the Great T-shirt, the preferred attire of many in a sanctuary so packed Sunday that about 40 people had to stand in the rear of the church.

Those who attended the prayer service followed Catholic rituals, dipping a finger in holy water as they entered, crossing themselves and kneeling in prayer. Some clutched rosaries, and several grew teary as their eyes took in the crowd of worshipers.

"Good morning," Akoury said. "Welcome to St. Albert the Great, where we have shown the archdiocese the true meaning of parish community."

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