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Spotlight Report

Closed church still beckons

Many parishioners say they feel adrift

By Steven Rosenberg, Globe Staff, 10/16/2003

SALEM -- Every weekday at around 1:05 p.m., Anna Della Monica parks her car in front of the former St. Mary's Church on Margin Street.

She emerges from the car, and takes a strip of black plastic and wraps it around the pillar of her former church before proceeding to the edge of the street, where she holds her sign -- "Christ loves St. Mary's Church" -- and waves to passersby.

Della Monica, who was the church organist for 56 years, says her nine-month vigil is representative of the spiritual loss that former parishioners have endured since the church closed last January.

At that time, the Archdiocese of Boston cited a shortage of priests for the closing. The brick and concrete church, with its marble altars, stained-glass windows, and ceiling murals, has been locked since the winter, leaving its 350 parishioners to find new spiritual homes.

"What I get out of it is the satisfaction that I am able to do something -- even if it doesn't get my church back. It shows how I feel, and I don't like it," she said, of her weekday ritual.

In the winter she brought thermal gloves to warm her fingers; in the spring and fall she has arrived with an umbrella. If she can borrow a battery-powered organ on Christmas Eve, she said she'll round up some of the old parishioners from the neighborhood, and bring them to the church's front doors and play Christmas carols.

Seventy-eight years ago when the church opened, the streets of this neighborhood reverberated with Italian dialects. Some of the newcomers came from Sicily, and others from the mainland, finding work as masons, factory workers, and gardeners. Their new church helped unify the new Americans, said Paul Cultrera, who recalled the first brick being laid at the site.

On Thanksgiving 1925, families walked from High, Summer, Endicott, Gedney, and other nearby streets to celebrate the church's opening. That day, the church bell rang like no other bell, said Cultrera, who remembered women donating their gold wedding bands to help "sweeten" its ring.

Cultrera, who is 89, greets visitors with a smile, and motions to his paintings of the former church in his first-floor hallway. Upstairs in his den, he talks about the frustration that comes with knowing that he will never be able to return to his old church. "I don't feel as if I belong to a church now, I'm just a participant; I'm a visitor," he said, of the parish that he now attends. "We're like a bunch of scattered sheep. We have no way of gathering."

Leah Femino-Ferris insists she hasn't lost her faith in her religion, and has continued to attend Mass, "floating" from church to church. "I feel like a stranger in a strange land," she said, describing her search for a new parish. "I miss seeing people I would see week after week after week for years. You just don't have the same feeling. I know it's a building, but nevertheless it's a second home. It was built by blood, sweat, and tears, and the sacrifices that all our parents made."

Femino-Ferris, who is a cousin of Della Monica, said many of the former parishioners are now realizing that their funerals will not be held at the church where they were baptized, christened, and married. "I'm heartbroken, not that I want to die, but I was hoping to be buried from my own church and now I'm not," she said.

Nancy Perroni, who attended the church for more than 70 years, was a third-generation parishioner at St. Mary's. Her grandfather, Antonio Crescenti, helped build the church, and was an usher at the 7:30 a.m. Mass all his adult life.

Perroni, who was christened and baptized inside the brick and marble church, still attends Mass and said her faith is strong, but acknowledged the grief she feels. "Having this church close feels as if a member of my family has died. I feel the grief as much as when I lost people in my family. It's a very, very sad thing," she said.

Besides pleading with the Archdiocese of Boston to reopen the church, Della Monica and Cultrera said they've made two requests to the religious institution. The two want to move the former church bell, and a plaque honoring eight Salem men from the church to the nearby Christopher Columbus Society.

According to the two, the Archdiocese, which owns the church properties, has not responded to their requests.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese declined to answer questions from the Globe about the bell and plaque, or the future of the former church.

The church, and its accompanying properties, a four-story rectory, a youth center, and a three-story apartment building were assessed by the city in 2001 at $1.5 million.

Cultrera still marvels at the achievements of the church and rattles off statistics with a special pride. He recalled working every Saturday night for 48 years running the church's bingo game; he recalled the day the Rev. Salvatore Screnci announced at the church's 50 anniversary celebration that the parish would donate $50,000 to the archdiocese; he talked about the "Christmas Club" drives that helped bolster the church's finances.

But with every recollection, there is silence and resignation about the status of his old church. "I can't put fancy words to this loss," he said, pausing. "If they sell that church, destroy that church, they might as well kill us."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.


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