Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
In a first step toward ending its long struggle over parish closings, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston today announced that it will solicit public comment on a plan to remove the sacred standing of seven closed churches, a change that under canon law would allow the buildings to be sold for other uses.
The churches, in East Boston, Everett, Lowell, Quincy, Revere, Scituate and Wellesley, have been in limbo for years, since the archdiocese ordered them closed and angry parishioners objected. Four of the parishes are occupied by protesters.
In response to appeals from parishioners, the Vatican has upheld the archdiocese's decision to close the parishes. But the parishioners are now asking the Vatican to intervene to prevent the archdiocese from declaring the church buildings no longer sacred -- a formal process the church calls "relegation to profane use.''
Although local Catholics protesting parish closings have repeatedly been rebuffed by the Vatican, they got a rare boost this week, when it became public that the Vatican had upheld appeals by parishioners of three closed churches in the Springfield Diocese of western Massachusetts. Church officials in Rome found that Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell acted appropriately in deciding to close or merge the parishes in Chicopee and Adams, but not in seeking to convert the buildings from religious to secular use.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston called the local appeals premature, because the status of the buildings has not yet been changed.
During the first step in a process outlined by the archdiocese, there will be a month-long public comment period beginning tomorrow, during which the archdiocese will accept feedback on its plan to allow non-sacred uses of the buildings. Of particular interest, diocesan officials said, will be the thoughts and feelings of those who once worshipped in the churches on the list.
"Our buildings are important to us in the Catholic faith," said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, the archdiocese's vicar general. "They're places of high honor, where many of us have experienced first communions, marriages, the burial of loved ones. Church is like another home for us, so any time we consider a use other than the sacred, it's a very serious matter, a very serious decision."
The feedback, most of which officials hope to collect online, will be analyzed to determine what percentage of respondents support and oppose the plan, and will also be considered subjectively, as church leaders assess whether there is "grave reason" for the change, as required by church law.
In the past, Erikson said, the deterioration of buildings has been one reason for removing their sacred status. The financial position of the Archdiocese would not qualify as a reason by itself, he said, but if finances prevented proper upkeep of churches, that could be a reason.
The churches being studied for possible sale are St. James the Great in Wellesley; St. Therese in Everett; St. Jeanne D’Arc in Lowell; Star of the Sea in Quincy; Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere; St. Francis X. Cabrini in Scituate and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston.
Assessments of the properties' potential financial value will be undertaken, and will account for their locations in "diverse communities from Everett to Lowell to Scituate, each with its own different real estate market," said Erikson.
Should the buildings be stripped of their status and put up for sale, sacred objects including stained glass windows and furnishings would first be removed and offered to other Catholic institutions. The buildings would not be sold for uses in conflict with church teachings, such as abortion services, and while the size of the bids is also a factor, Erikson said some preference would be given to projects in keeping with the church's mission.
"What makes us most happy is when churches have been used to benefit the community, when they've become units in mixed-income housing, that would help poor families," he said.
A church in Brookline, St. Aidan, where both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy were baptized, was turned into a mix of high-end condominiums contructed in the former church and affordable units in a new building on the site of a former rectory. Another church, Jean Baptiste in Lynn, became 38 affordable units in the heart of an old, immigrant neighborhood.
Dozens of parishes in the archdiocese have closed or merged since 2004, reducing the total number to 291 from 357. Most worshipers at the closing parishes accepted the decisions, but controversy erupted at some, including five where former parishioners have occupied the buildings, holding round-the-clock vigils.
There is no set timeline for a decision by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley on the fate of the buildings, and the archdiocese has not said how it plans to resolve the fact that some of the buildings are occupied by protesters other than to attempt to have dialogue with them.
"To those skeptical" that their input will be considered, Erikson said, "I ask them to put their confidence in this process, which may be unprecedented, which is designed to be thorough, thoughtful and efficient, and which was developed with sincere intent."
Comments will be accepted through March 18 at a website established for the purpose, www.2011Consultation.org, or by calling 617-746-5669.
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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