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A step toward selling churches

Diocese seeks end of sacred status for shut parishes

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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In a move toward ending its long struggle over parish closings, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said yesterday 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 converted into other uses or sold.

The move signals that the archdiocese is ready to begin what is likely to be a lengthy process of attempting to resolve one of its most vexing challenges: objections to parish closings that have resulted in years of lawsuits, protests, and even tax battles. Five closed parishes have been occupied by former parishioners for as long as six years.

The churches the archdiocese proposes to “relegate to profane use,’’ the canon law phrase for converting property from sacred to secular use, are located in East Boston, Everett, Lowell, Quincy, Revere, Scituate, and Wellesley.

Those churches have been in limbo for years, since the archdiocese ordered them closed and angry parishioners objected. Four of the seven parishes are occupied by protesters; a fifth occupied parish, in Framingham, is not affected because the archdiocese intends to transfer that building to a congregation of Eastern Rite Catholics.

Former parishioners at the churches marked for possible sale reacted to the announcement with a mix of hope and skepticism.

“To receive this overture from the cardinal, to essentially take another look at our church, is giving us cause for hope,’’ said Sean Glennon, cochairman of the parishioners group at Star of the Sea in Quincy, one of the closed churches that could lose its sacred status. “We did a letter writing campaign before, and it didn’t have any impact, so there is trepidation that it will go into the inbox and never be looked at. But we’ve come this far; we can’t pass up this opportunity.’’

In response to previous appeals from parishioners, the Vatican has upheld the archdiocese’s decision to close multiple parishes. But parishioners at six of the seven churches are now asking the Vatican to intervene to prevent the archdiocese from declaring the church buildings no longer sacred.

Although the Vatican has rarely sided with Catholics objecting to parish closings, the Boston-area parishioners say they are encouraged by Vatican rulings that became public this week, upholding appeals by parishioners of three closed churches in the Springfield Diocese in 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, Terrence C. Donilon, called appeals of proposed changes to Boston-area churches premature, because the status of the buildings has not yet been changed. But under church law, any move to put the properties on the market would be put on hold while any appeals are pending, he said.

During the monthlong public comment period that begins today, the archdiocese says it will accept feedback on its plan to allow nonsacred uses of the buildings. Of particular interest, diocesan officials said, will be the thoughts and feelings of those who once worshipped in the churches.

“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.’’

In Scituate, where former parishioners have occupied St. Frances X. Cabrini since 2004, vigil leader Maryellen Rogers criticized the survey because its open format fails to focus on the people most affected.

“Are they going to contact all the parishioners from the closed churches?’’ she said. “It’s almost like ‘Survivor: Catholic Island’ all over again, because people can say, ‘Let’s close this and protect our church.’ But no church is safe, and there could be more closures.’’

The survey results, which will mostly be collected online, will be analyzed to determine what percentage of respondents support or 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 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 other churches being studied for possible sale are St. James the Great in Wellesley; St. Therese in Everett; St. Jeanne D’Arc in Lowell; Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston.

In Wellesley, town officials have already begun making plans to bid on the St. James the Great property, where they hope to build a recreation complex that could include an ice rink.

“Our community is fairly built out, and we have relatively few opportunities to gain a large piece of land for some public purpose,’’ said Hans Larsen, the town’s executive director.

If the buildings are stripped of their status and put up for sale, sacred objects including stained-glass windows 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, 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,’’ he said. “For example, when they’ve become units in mixed-income housing, that would help poor families.’’

Dozens of parishes in the archdiocese have closed or merged since 2004, reducing the total number to 291 from 357.

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.

Comments will be accepted through March 18 at a website established for the purpose, www.2011Consultation.org, or by calling 617-746-5669 to request a survey form by mail.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.