Christine M. Williams is a journalist who reports from Massachusetts. She regularly writes for Our Sunday Visitor, The National Catholic Register, The Pilot in Boston and others. In 2015, she received two Catholic Press Association awards for feature writing.
After nearly a dozen years of protesting the closure of their parish, a group of Boston Catholics announced the end of their round-the-clock occupation of the church. The Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, Mass. said in a statement that they had exhausted the appeals process and would leave after a celebration on May 29.
Jon Rogers, spokesperson for the group, said in the statement, “We are proud that we have brought these important issues to the U.S. Supreme Court and are confident that other parishes in similar closure situations will build on our shoulders to carry these matters forward to a successful decision in the Court.”
Throughout the vigil, the Archdiocese of Boston encouraged the protesters to join other parishes. In reaction to the Supreme Court electing not to hear the case, the Archdiocese said in a May 16 statement, “We appreciate the Court’s review of this matter. Given the denial of the Friends of St. Frances Cabrini's petition, we ask them to end their vigil and leave the property within 14 days in accordance with the agreement filed with the Superior Court. The parishes of the archdiocese welcome and invite those involved with the vigil to participate and join in the fullness of parish life.”
But the group at St. Frances has repeatedly stated they will carry on, with or without the archdiocese. They have offered to buy the church so that they can continue to worship there. The archdiocese will not sell them the property.
Rogers said, “The next phase of this faith journey will be a transition into an independent Catholic community — without the archdiocese.”
In 2004, the Archdiocese announced that changing demographics, decreasing Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and the rising cost of maintaining properties necessitated the shuttering of scores of parishes. At the time, one-third of all parishes were operating in the red, and in the city of Boston alone, deferred maintenance costs topped $100 million.
Archdiocesan regions were asked to suggest which churches should close, sometimes pitting neighbor against neighbor. Closing parishes were assigned a “welcoming parish” nearby. Many Catholics made the transition, but not everyone wanted to move on. At several churches, parishioners refused to leave after the final Mass.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston formed a committee to review the parish closures, acknowledging at the time that the process had been difficult and painful. He accepted all 17 of the committee’s recommendations, including the reversal of several church closings. The committee did not object to the most of the closures, including that of St. Frances.
Catholics at 11 former parishes, including St. Frances, appealed through the Vatican court system, which denied them all in 2010. Several filed a second round of appeals, objecting to how the church buildings would be relegated; the Vatican denied those appeals in 2014. Only the Friends of St. Frances maintained their vigil beyond 2014.
Cardinal O’Malley had promised to let the vigils continue as long as there was pending litigation. Since that process had concluded, the Archdiocese asked the Catholics at St. Frances to vacate the building by March 9, 2014. They did not, and the archdiocese pursued civil recourse. The courts all sided with the Archdiocese, and the Supreme Court recently decided not to take up the case.
In the end, the Archdiocese closed around 50 parishes. Once the last church has been vacated and sold, the long, messy process will finally conclude.
Neither the Archdiocese of Boston nor the Friends of St. Frances could be reached for comment.