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New Life for a Catholic Parish

June 19, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

DEDHAM, Mass. — For her 92nd birthday today, Mary Giorgio did not dare hope that Boston church officials would reverse their decision to close her beloved Roman Catholic parish.

But that is what happened, ending 13 months of anguishing limbo at St. Susanna Parish.

"I am elated and I am surprised," said Giorgio, who has attended daily Mass at St. Susanna since the red brick house of worship opened in 1961. Her two daughters were confirmed and married in the church with the soaring A-frame roof, and when her husband Salvatore died five years ago, it's where his funeral was held.

Giorgio said she had worried that Boston Archdiocese officials would stick to their plan to close St. Susanna as part of a massive reconfiguration designed to reduce costs in the face of more than $100 million in clerical abuse settlements. St. Susanna is one of two Roman Catholic parishes in this community of 23,000 that lies 10 miles southwest of Boston.

"When you get to be my age, you keep thinking: Please God, when I leave this world, I want to leave it from my church and not from some strange church," Giorgio said. "I think God has given me a little more time."

St. Susanna was one of 83 churches in Boston originally scheduled to close or merge with other parishes. Late Thursday, Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, in Chicago for the U.S. bishops' conference, announced that St. Susanna and four other parishes scheduled to close would remain open.

However, O'Malley agreed to keep St. Susanna open only until March 2008, when the term of Father Stephen S. Josoma, the parish pastor, is scheduled to end.

Parishioners were informed 13 months ago that St. Susanna would close in September 2004. They mounted an appeal and met with archdiocese leaders. The September date passed and the 1,300 parishioners steeled themselves, hoping to remain open into the new year.

"We were just hanging," said Janet Sebago, parish secretary for 19 years.

Following the lead of eight other Boston-area churches that were occupied by parishioners after church leaders ordered them shut, members of St. Susanna were prepared to stage a round-the-clock vigil -- eating, sleeping and praying in the church to keep it from being closed.

Sebago said the parish had assembled a "very active" phone tree. Father Josoma told church members he would support them in their vigil.

Archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon said Friday that the threat of a parish takeover had no influence on the decision to allow St. Susanna to remain open.

But Josoma said all the planning, anxiety and determination of the last 13 months had brought the parish even closer together: "We were always a together community, but we became a family."

New members joined the parish during the 13 months of uncertainty. Donations increased, fattening the parish bank account. More and more activities took place -- such as a screening a week ago of a television movie about the abuse scandal that drew 100 people to a heated Sunday night discussion session.

Although aware that the parish might be shut down on a moment's notice, parishioners continued to behave as if that day might never come. Matt Barry, chairman of the parish council, said his sister Heather achieved her dream two weeks ago of being married at the parish her parents joined when the church was built.

"It's still kind of hard to believe, because this has been going on for so long," said Matt Barry, 20. "It's kind of like the Red Sox winning the World Series. I think it's going to take a while for it to sink in."

His father, Steve Barry, called the news amazing: "We were caught completely by surprise." The Barrys, who live across the street from the red brick parish, learned the news when they heard the church bells pealing for no apparent reason.

But the Barrys, father and son, said they were not comfortable with the three-year time frame attached to the decision to let the church stay open.

"It makes me a little bit nervous," Matt Barry said. "You don't know what they're going to say in three years."

Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes -- a group organized to support parishes and resist reconfiguration -- described the three-year extension as "a stay of execution."

Borre said 18 of the original 83 parishes scheduled to close had "had their status modified," allowing them to remain open in some capacity.

Although the closure list was the result of extensive research, "that to me is an error rate of 22% -- pretty high, whether you are dealing with widgets or the spiritual homes of Catholics," Borre said.

He cautioned, moreover, that just as the sexual abuse crisis spread across the country after it erupted in Boston three years ago, the reconfiguration movement also could take place in cash-strapped Catholic communities around America.

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