The Archdiocese of Boston has decided not to repair a broken boiler that is the sole source of heat for a closed parish, St. Therese in Everett, that has been occupied by protesters for nearly four years.
It is not clear what the implications are for the future of the building, which is one of five closed parishes in eastern Massachusetts that have been occupied by protesters since the sweeping parish closings of 2004. The archdiocese says it is "winterizing" the building by draining the pipes, meaning that the protesters who are sleeping in the building are doing so without heat and potentially without water (they said today that there is still water in a bathroom on the property). The archdiocese has long suggested that safety concerns could be a rationale for acting to end a vigil, but today a spokesman said that the archdiocese's only plan for the moment is "ongoing communication" with the protesters.
A spokeswoman for the vigil, Joan Shepard, said today there has been little such communication -- she described the group of 20 to 30 who regularly occupy the church as "the forgotten church" -- and said that the protesters are prepared to continue without heat. She said today is the group's 1,436th day in vigil; it was also the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux (a canonized Carmelite nun known as "the Little Flower"), for whom the parish was named, and Shepard said an archdiocesan official had asked the protesters to remove their personal belongings by that date.
"We’ve been sitting in there with afghans, and we don't know whether they're going to lock it or not,'' she said. "We’re going to continue to be here. They’ve turned off the boilers, but we have blankets, and we’ll see.''
Shepard said that the worshipers want the parish, which was opened in 1928, to be reopened.
The archdiocese closed the parish in 2004, and asked the parishioners to go to other nearby parishes. Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said today that the parish's boiler needs $50,000 worth of repairs, and that archdiocesan officials "cannot assume this expense.'' Donilon said the archdiocese has spent $300,000 to date to maintain St. Therese for the protesters. He said it is costing the cash-strapped archdiocese $880,000 a year to maintain and insure the five closed parishes that have been occupied by protesters for four years or longer, as well as several others that are not occupied but are the subject of canonical or civil law appeals. Donilon said the disputes over closed parishes have cost the archdiocese $2.2 million since 2004. Donilon said the archdiocese had not ordered the protesters to remove their belongings, but that "we have had conversations in the past trying to encourage them to move on to welcoming parishes."
Here is the official statement from the archdiocese:
"The Archdiocese of Boston has been in communication with those individuals who have been involved with a vigil at the former St. Therese Parish in Everett, regarding concerns involving the boiler in the church building. In August 2008, the group in vigil was informed that the Archdiocese had been notified that the boiler in the church would require significant repairs if it was to remain in service at the building. An independent analysis of the boiler highlighted safety and fire hazards if it is not repaired. Additionally, the Archdiocese has been informed that the boiler will fail statutory code requirements if it is not repaired. Independent heating contractor estimates for code compliant repair of the boiler are in the range of $50,000. The Archdiocese cannot assume this expense. In the coming weeks the system will be winterized in order to prevent damage to the church building. The Archdiocese of Boston is committed to ongoing communication and respectful dialogue with those persons involved with vigil. We continue to hope and pray that we can work together to resolve any remaining differences and go forward with the mission of the Church in the Archdiocese in Boston."
Peter Borre, the co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, a coalition of Catholics resisting some of the parish closings, said that the St. Therese parishioners have been less litigious than others, but that the archdiocese has not responded by engaging with those unhappy over the closing. "The parishioners of St Therese have not filed civil lawsuits or canon appeals,'' he said. "All they have done over four long years is to sit prayerfully in round-the-clock vigil. Cardinal O'Malley reached out pastorally to four other vigil groups and restored their faith communities. The St. Therese group deserves no less.''
UPDATE: My story in Thursday morning Globe.
(Photo at right was taken by Mark Wilson of the Globe staff in 2005.)