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GROTON

Merger possible for church

St. James may join parish in Pepperell

By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2009
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The Catholic church in West Groton was built out of stone in the 1920s and originally catered to the area's farming and milling community. But despite being a vibrant parish swelling with a new demographic of young families, this idyllic looking country church is in danger of closing, say church officials.

The Rev. Paul Ring, pastor of the parish, said St. James Church has witnessed increased giving recently, but it is not enough to stave off a possible merger. Rising salaries, heating expenses, and soaring health insurance costs have put the parish in a difficult predicament, he said.

"We're feeling the economic crunch, just like everybody else," said Ring during a recent phone interview. "I think people would like to give more, but they only have so much to give. The economy has hit them hard."

If Cardinal Sean O'Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston agrees to close the church, Ring would shift the Groton parish over to Pepperell's St. Joseph Parish, which Ring also oversees, and increase the number of weekly Masses to accommodate the expanded attendance. The move would leave Groton without a Catholic church, since Sacred Heart Church on Main Street closed in 2006. The two parishes have merged into one, called Sacred Heart-St. James Parish.

Ring said a shift to Pepperell makes sense, given that St. Joseph's is a much larger building and able to seat about 425. St. James seats about 125, forcing the overflow to watch the Mass in the basement on TV, he said.

Under the tentative scenario, the two Groton properties would be sold, and the money raised would go toward a larger structure that would sustain Groton and Pepperell Catholic populations for years to come, said Ring. In the meantime, services are still being held at St. James.

Ring said Groton's situation is part of a larger problem clergy and congregations across the region face, as the reality of a national economic nosedive sets in. Both Protestant and Catholic churches in the area are feeling the economic sting, said Ring, though Groton seems to be the only place considering a church closing at this time.

Talk of the church closure in Groton has touched a nerve with parishioners; some of them have been attending the two local Catholic churches for decades. For many, the two churches evoke nostalgia and history.

One parishioner, Dorothy Van Hoogen, said both churches have played vital role in the town's history. Around 1900, the church that is now Sacred Heart was rolled over on logs from the Groton School, which donated the Episcopal chapel building to local Catholics.

Van Hoogen also said she would not like to see Sacred Heart sold and potentially leveled because of personal ties.

"It's a sweet little chapel," said Van Hoogen. "My daughter was married there."

Until Sacred Heart closed, Van Hoogen said, Catholic students at Groton School attended Mass at the church. Groton was the first settlement in the area during Colonial times, and it's only fitting that the town have a Catholic church, she added.

"Groton was the center for all activities when they settled this area, and I think Groton should have a Catholic church that's of suitable size," said Van Hoogen.

Jerri Perry, another parishioner, said the overflow problem at the St. James church was certainly a concern, but she feared that merging the Pepperell and Groton parishes might spark an exodus of Catholics to surrounding communities. Perry said the closing of Sacred Heart in 2006, spurred by the shortage of Catholic priests, prompted many to seek churches closer to their homes in nearby communities like Westford.

"There would be some who would not want to go over to Pepperell," Perry said. "But maybe they would, if they felt it was temporary and we were in the process of building a new church."

Perry said some parishioners departed the local churches in Groton after the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2001, but she said scandal did not substantially deplete the two local parishes.

Ring said he can empathize with the concerns of parishioners and said he takes it as a good sign that people are being passionate about the issues facing local churches. But the economic situation is an unavoidable dilemma, he said.

"There's a lot of people concerned, who would have some issues with us closing," said Ring. "They have a personal stake in this church. If people are passionate about their church, that's a good thing. But people do have to understand that there are realities at work, which we have to deal with."

Matt Gunderson can be reached at mpgunderson@gmail.com.

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