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Vigils’ days numbered, parishioners’ hope fades

Six years later, churches closed by archdiocese exhaust appeals

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By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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EVERETT — A weathered sign stands on the grass out front: “Come join our vigil . . . Already in progress.’’ Someone comes by each day to flip the counter: Day 2,148, Day 2,149. But much of the time, the plain brick church across from Trinity Tattoo stands empty.

After the boiler broke two years ago, the vigil participants at St. Therese stopped sleeping in the pews, reluctantly bowing to the archdiocese’s concerns about safety. The anchor of the group, Harry Whelan, died in June. One by one, the light bulbs in the sanctuary burned out.

“We fought them, we really did. . . . Now everyone’s dispersed,’’ Lori Whelan, Harry’s widow, said on a warm evening last month as she lugged groceries up the steep steps to her house, a few blocks from the silent church. “What we were trying to establish was a rebirth, really. Of course, that will never happen now.’’

It has been six years since the Archdiocese of Boston began closing 66 parishes in an effort to address a shortage of priests, a financial crunch, and diminishing Mass attendance — and six years since parishioners at seven of those churches refused to leave. The resisters dragged mattresses and televisions into parish halls, guarded the sanctuaries in shifts, organized prayer services, and held Sunday worship without priests. They filed unsuccessful civil suits against the archdiocese, and appealed the closures to Rome.

But now, the days of the last five remaining vigils appear to be numbered. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley promised not to act against the worshipers until they had exhausted their appeals, but in May, the Vatican’s highest court rejected canon law appeals from supporters of closed parishes. Last week, O’Malley’s aides began summoning vigil leaders to meetings, hoping they might be persuaded to join open parishes, and let go of the closed ones at last.

“We really do hope this can be resolved in a peaceful and respectful way,’’ said Sister Marian Batho, a member of O’Malley’s Cabinet and his liaison to the vigil participants.

The Council of Parishes, an organization representing Catholics who object to some of the parish closings, is still trying to persuade the Vatican to bar the archdiocese from declaring the churches available for nonreligious purposes. But among many of the rank-and-file vigil participants, hope is fading that the cardinal will reverse the decision to close the parishes.

“In our hearts, we want to believe,’’ said Virginia Schepici, 69, sitting at a table in the Our Lady of Mount Carmel basement hall in East Boston, where the aging vigil participants still gather for coffee and doughnuts after the Sunday service. “But realistically, the answer is no.’’

Yet worship continues in some form at all of the closed churches, and those who participate are fiercely proud of their commitment to their old parishes, and to one another.

Several have grown used to a Sunday service without priests — something that is not quite Mass, but that offers a kind of homespun spiritual intimacy. At St. James the Great in Wellesley, when it’s time for Communion, dozens gather in a circle around the altar, and Eucharistic ministers place wafers, blessed by sympathetic priests, in open hands. Strains of choir music rise from a boom box.

Gathering to pray remains a matter of friendship as well as devotion, and it’s an impulse that remains strong even among those for whom sleeping in the church has become too much. A small group of elderly vigil participants kneel together in the pews at St. Jeremiah in Framingham each evening; on a balmy night last month, an elderly woman among them gave each enormous pink hibiscus blossoms from her garden.

Vigil participants at St. Jeremiah’s have settled into a symbiotic relationship with an Eastern Rite Catholic congregation that secured an agreement from the archdiocese to use the church building. An Eastern Rite priest says a Latin Rite Mass for the vigil participants every Sunday, and on Saturday afternoons they have a Communion service and potluck dinner. There is even religious education for children.

“We are functioning as a parish in everything but name,’’ said Mary Beth Carmody, a leader of the vigil.

Each parish retains its old character, even in its reduced state.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s unremarkable brick front sits impassively on its barren block most days. But when Maria D’Agostino unlocks the doors for the rosary group on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings, its interior glitters like a geode.

Crucifixes and Madonnas and statues of saints crowd the altar, lit by candles and small lamps; marble angels bow their heads beneath colorful stained glass windows. The murmuring of women praying in Italian fills the sanctuary, occasionally drawing in curious passersby from the street.

At St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, about 100 regulars attend the lay-led service each Sunday; on Christmas and Easter, they say, attendance can reach 800. The vigil participants there would like a priest, but they have come to see their congregation as a model for a new era, one where priests are in short supply, and laypeople shoulder much of the responsibility for running the church.

St. Frances is never left unattended. The vigil-keepers have acquired some of the discipline of a military company: The makeshift bedrooms in the sacristy and choir rooms are shipshape; the kitchen is stocked; the entryway has been transformed into a living room. Bulletin boards are plastered with schedules, notices, and emergency phone numbers; there is even a map showing a quarter-mile loop around the church for fitness walkers to track their mileage.

“People say, ‘What, do you sleep on pews?’ ’’ Jaine Donelan said during her usual overnight shift the other week. “Not exactly. We have Memory Foam beds, wireless Internet, TV, movies. It’s very comfortable.’’

But the other churches are no longer occupied around the clock. Our Lady of Mount Carmel has its rosary group and Sunday services, but it stands empty most of the time. In Wellesley, there are sometimes blank spots in the vigil schedule; on a beautiful summer Saturday last month, the church was deserted most of the day.

And in Framingham on a recent evening, St. Jeremiah was dark and quiet. The priest from the Eastern Rite congregation, at the rectory next door, said the vigil participants no longer stay the night.

As time has passed, many of the old parishioners have grown frustrated and moved on. Suzanne Hurley, a vigil participant in Wellesley, has fond memories of spending nights in the church with her family back in the early days. That ritual came to an end early one morning, when her husband lost his patience with the archdiocese. She awoke next to her sleeping family in the choir loft to find him looking out over the sanctuary.

“He said, ‘I’m done, I can’t do this any more,’ ’’ she recalled. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Vigiling. I know it’s important to you, but I’m done with them.’ ’’

Her kids are older now, busy with their own lives; Hurley and her husband respect each other’s position on the vigils: She goes, he doesn’t.

Illness and death have visited, too. In East Boston, the annual Carnevale celebration before Lent wasn’t held this year because that vigil’s leaders, Benny and Deb Tauro, were mourning the loss of their son, Steven. And the congregation has had to sing extra loud on Sundays since David Cino’s father, who is caring for his ill wife, can no longer come to play the organ.

Whelan’s death was a devastating blow to the vigilers at St. Therese. A fixture at the church each morning, he was the cheerful handyman, the gentle listener, the one “the girls’’ would call in the wee hours of the morning if they heard a strange noise outside.

But the vigils have also been a source of comfort for the grieving. Carol Tumasz, a lifelong parishioner of St. Therese, thinks of her mother, another faithful vigil participant who died a year ago last April, when she returns each morning to pray before work.

“I go over in the seats where she used to sit at Mass,’’ she said. “That’s where I pray now. To feel the closeness.’’

Each vigil has also been a powerful source of friendships. Many of the participants say that before their parishes closed, they would leave quickly after Mass, rarely pausing to chat.

“Now I do, and I like it,’’ said Bobbie Sullivan, a member of St. Frances for three decades. “We’re living our faith every day.’’

The participants maintain a polite but strained relationship with the archdiocese, which still owns all the churches, and takes care of most utility costs and many of the repairs. But not all vigils are treated equally.

The archdiocese decided to fix a boiler in Wellesley, for example, but refused to replace Everett’s broken one. Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said a new boiler at St. Therese would have cost too much — $50,000 to $60,000.

St. Therese and St. Frances, unlike the other churches, have never been granted a priest for a holiday or a funeral. Batho said O’Malley’s decisions reflect the assessment of regional bishops and vicars about the “pastoral need’’ in a given situation.

The archdiocese is hoping that the vigil participants have had time to grieve for their churches, and that they are ready to return to regular parish life.

“We want that passion and faith to help build up our parish communities within the Archdiocese of Boston,’’ said the Rev. Richard Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese. “Our hope is that they will get a sense of how much we want and need them.’’

Some of those who are still part of the vigils also attend Mass at other churches. But many say they have no desire to attend the Catholic Church down the road. And now, they are considering what they will do if the vigils finally end.

In Scituate, the vigil participants have hoped O’Malley would consider a deal allowing the archdiocese to sell most of the closed parish’s land in exchange for allowing the worshipers to keep the church, with or without a priest. If that’s not possible, said Maryellen Rogers, a leader of the St. Frances vigil, the group has secured space to go on meeting together.

“We will never say it’s the end,’’ she said. “We are an incredibly strong Catholic faith community, and we’re going to stay a community.’’

Kathleen Daly, 68, who is active at St. James, said some of her fellow participants have been talking about the small breakaway groups of Catholics who meet outside of regular parishes. She feels so deeply troubled about the Catholic hierarchy, and what she sees as its lack of accountability, that she has considered looking for a non-Catholic congregation.

“I didn’t think I would be sitting here finding my church at this point in my life,’’ she said.

Few of the last holdouts at Our Lady of Mount Carmel seem ready to join a new parish.

“I got married in this church,’’ said Pasquale Freda, 70. He thumped his chest indignantly. “It’s in my heart.’’

If they have to leave, after all this time, Concetta Marchione, 74, says she would pray with the priests on television. And, Schepici said, the participants would hug and kiss and say it was all worthwhile.

“We tried,’’ she said. “It’s not that we didn’t try. We gave it our best.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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