Mass. Court Stays Order for Catholics to Vacate Closed Church

A decade-long dispute over the fate of an Archdiocese of Boston church remains unresolved.

Maryellen and Jon Rogers stand with Janie Avery (c), holding the most recent protest quilt outside the former St. Frances Cabrini parish in Scituate, Mass., which protesters have occupied for more than 10 years.
Maryellen and Jon Rogers stand with Janie Avery (c), holding the most recent protest quilt outside the former St. Frances Cabrini parish in Scituate, Mass., which protesters have occupied for more than 10 years. (photo: Christine M. Williams)

SCITUATE, Mass. — For more than a decade, Catholics have occupied the church building that was once St. Frances X. Cabrini parish in Scituate, Mass. They turned the confessional into a guest room and the vestibule into a living room. Someone has kept vigil at the church 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for more than 10 and a half years.

They appealed the closure all the way to the Vatican’s highest court, but the Archdiocese of Boston’s decision prevailed. When the Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, as the community calls itself, continued their vigil in spite of the final ruling, the archdiocese sought recourse in civil court. Initially, the Massachusetts court issued an order for the vigilers to vacate the building. But on June 10 a stay on that order was issued, due to the group’s ongoing appeal.

“We will exhaust every level of recourse necessary,” said Maryellen Rogers, a spokeswoman for the group. “We have great faith in God. We feel that what we are doing is just. We have faith in our court system, so we’re all prayerful and hopeful that there will be a just outcome.”

Members of the group say they will not leave the church willingly, even if it comes down to being led out in handcuffs.


‘Painful Sacrifices’

The Archdiocese of Boston suppressed St. Frances in 2004 as part of a reconfiguration process that closed about 50 churches. The archdiocese said that changing demographics, decreasing Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and the rising cost of maintaining properties necessitated the closing of churches.

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. The hope was that the surviving parishes would be stronger, with better resources for ministering to the faithful.

In a 2003 address to priests of the archdiocese at Boston College, archbishop of Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley said that difficult decisions needed to be made in order to turn the situation around and to better equip remaining parishes for the work of pastoral care and evangelization for the present and future generations.

“I know that people are loath to close a beloved parish and parish church. But we must help our parishioners to see that it is because of the needs of our family that we make these painful sacrifices,” said the archbishop. “We must not deny our people the right to mourn the loss of a parish and a church building, but we need to challenge them to make great sacrifices for an even greater good,” he said, noting the need to help parishes be better equipped for evangelization, especially to youth, as well as service to shut-ins, catechesis and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Rogers said she thinks St. Frances was targeted for its valuable 30 acres of coastal property and that the need to close parishes in the archdiocese was directly related to the clergy-abuse crisis.

Throughout the reconfiguration process, Cardinal O’Malley said that the parish closures were not directly a result of the multimillion-dollar clergy-abuse settlement. He did recognize that the resulting drop in financial contributions accelerated the need to reduce the number of parishes.

The archdiocese also sold the former archbishop’s residence, central administration offices and surrounding land to neighboring Boston College for $172.4 million. Those funds plus insurance covered the settlement costs, according to the archdiocese.


Appeals Denied

Originally, more parishes were slated for closure, but in October of 2004, Cardinal O’Malley halted the reconfiguration process and appointed a Reconfiguration Review Committee. He accepted all 17 of their recommendations, including the reversal of several church closings, the following year. The committee approved the majority of reconfiguration decisions and recommended that St. Frances remain closed.

In a 2005 press release, committee co-chair Peter Meade praised Cardinal O’Malley as an “incredibly thoughtful leader in an extremely difficult time in the archdiocese.”

Catholics at St. Frances and 10 other parishes appealed the decision through the Vatican court system. The Vatican courts denied all appeals in 2010. Several parishes sought recourse in a second round of appeals, objecting to how the church buildings would be relegated; the Vatican denied those appeals in 2014.

Cardinal O’Malley had promised to let the vigils continue as long as there was pending litigation. As the only remaining parish vigil, the Friends of St. Frances received notice that they needed to vacate the building by March 9 or the archdiocese would pursue civil recourse, which they did.

In a May 14 statement, the Archdiocese of Boston asked the Friends of St. Frances to respect the court’s decision and conclude the vigil.

Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence Donilon told the Register, “We will defer comment at this time, given the ongoing legal proceedings. That said, we continue to encourage the Friends of St. Frances to join a welcoming parish to participate in the fullness of parish life.”


Spiritual Homes

The Friends of St. Francis hold a Communion prayer service every Sunday. The Eucharist has been provided by priests sympathetic to their cause, but they will not name the priests, since the archdiocese disapproves of the arrangement.

They have offered to buy the church, but the archdiocese will not sell to them. The community has plans to stay together, even if they need to do so without the building, Rogers said.

At a coffee social following a Communion service on May 24, people talked about how much they love the community there and how much they want to be a fully functioning Catholic parish again.

Said Rogers, “Churches are spiritual homes; they’re not interchangeable.”

In its 2002 “Instruction to Parish Priests,” the Congregation for Clergy emphasized that a parish is fundamentally a communion of persons organized under the authority of the local bishop, not an entity rooted primarily in physical structures.

“A parish is a specific community of the christifideles, established on a stable basis within a particular Church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a parish priest as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop,” the Vatican instruction states. “Thus, the entire life of the parish, as well as the significance of its apostolic commitments to society, have to be understood and lived in terms of an organic communion between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood; of fraternal and dynamic collaboration between pastors and faithful, with absolute respect for the rights, duties and functions of both, and mutual recognition of their respective proper competence and responsibility.”

Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.