More than a century old Portuguese Catholic church closes in New Bedford

NEW BEDFORD—After nearly a century and a half, a Portuguese Catholic Church celebrated its final Mass here this morning, even as some parishioners have vowed to fight to keep the church open.

“I say thank you,” said the Rev. John J. Oliveira, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, his voice breaking. “Thank you for coming here today. Thank you for being with us. May the Lord give you his peace.”

As Oliveira delivered his homily in English and Portuguese, some in the near-capacity gathering of about 600 wiped back tears, or greeted friends with a pat on the shoulder or a hug.

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“I can’t believe I’m walking out of this church for the last time,” said an emotional Lenea Correia, 57, of New Bedford, after the Mass ended.

She said she has been a parishioner for 35 years, was married in the church and that her children were baptized there.

“We’ll survive, I guess,” Correia said. “We have to ... It was a beautiful Mass.”

The church, established in 1871, says it is the first Portuguese Catholic Church in North America.

In March, the Diocese of Fall River announced that St. John the Baptist would close, citing declining membership and financial hardships that have kept the church from making repairs to the building, which was dedicated in 1913 after the previous one burned down.

In October 2009, Bishop George W. Coleman approved a request from a parish council to give the church until 2011 to increase membership and shore up its finances, and then granted a one-year extension, but the goals were not met, according to the diocese.

The diocese has said that St. John the Baptist parishioners will be welcomed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is located less than a mile away and where Oliveira is also the pastor.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is also designated to serve the Portuguese-American community in New Bedford.

But some St. John the Baptist parishioners, including Fred Langevin, 62, a longtime member whose children and grandchildren were baptized there, are appealing to Coleman to reverse the decision to close.

And if that doesn’t work, Langevin said, the group will appeal the closing to the Vatican.

“We’re optimistic that we have a strong chance,” he said.

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