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6 shut churches may be sold

Archdiocese will seek bids for secular uses

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By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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BRAINTREE - Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley is moving to sell six shuttered churches belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, removing the sacred standing of the church buildings through decrees made public yesterday.

The decrees, which declare the church buildings suitable for secular use, satisfy a requirement under canon law that allows the archdiocese to seek bids to purchase the properties for redevelopment.

In three of the churches, parishioners have maintained protest vigils since their parishes were shut down in the middle of the last decade, occupying the buildings and holding their own services.

Protesters at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate, for example, have worked in shifts for years to maintain an around-the-clock presence.

Two other closed churches, in Everett and Framingham, will continue as houses of worship, O’Malley announced.

The fate of closed churches has been a source of painful dispute between Catholics and their archdiocese. Angry parishioners have fought the closings, taking their case to the highest authorities at the Vatican. The Vatican appeals were rejected last year.

O’Malley is asking protesters to accept that it is finally time to move on.

“He would ask the faithful to respect his decision, and in areas where there are vigils, that there would be a peaceful conclusion,’’ said the Rev. Arthur M. Coyle, the cardinal’s liaison for the long process to prepare the churches for sale.

But some protesters promised to fight on.

“I can’t respect that decision,’’ said Marsha Devir, a protester on duty yesterday at St. Frances Cabrini. Vigil-keepers have equipped the church for continuous occupation with beds in spare rooms, as well as easy chairs and a television in the vestibule. Though the parish ceased operations in 2004, the church’s lawn is mowed, the flower gardens are well tended, and the stained glass windows still glow brightly.

But there are signs of how much time has passed. The fonts reserved for holy water hold nothing but dust.

The group fighting to reopen the church, the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini, pledged in a statement yesterday to pursue appeals.

Devir said she would keep vigil until she “gets pulled out of here by the police.’’

The other churches covered by the decree, effective Monday, are St. James the Great in Wellesley; St. Jeanne D’Arc in Lowell; Star of the Sea in Quincy; Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston. Vigils have been ongoing in Wellesley and East Boston.

Nancye Connor, a parishioner at St. James since 1964, said yesterday that protesters had not decided how to react to the cardinal’s announcement. Some 20 to 40 people still pray and meet at the church, where a sign out front proclaims that parishioners are still looking for a priest.

“We’re very democratic, and we’ve got to discuss the next step,’’ Connor said.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel yesterday, Benito Tauro, 78, stood among piles of donated dishes and used clothing and said he was resigned to the church’s closing. The yard sale run from the church raised money to help continue services; now, Tauro said, he would keep selling until everything is gone and then donate the money to charity.

“Unfortunately, it’s their property,’’ he said, referring to the archdiocese. “They can do what they want.’’

The archdiocese is expected to eventually seek bids for the purchase and redevelopment of the buildings, with the stipulation that the properties cannot be used for activities that run afoul of Catholic teachings. For example, there will be no embryonic stem cell experiments in halls where sacraments were once dispensed.

Money raised by the sales will be used to support existing parishes, church officials said.

Another church in limbo for years, St. Therese in Everett, will survive, though not as a stand-alone parish. It will be assigned to St. Anthony Parish, also in Everett, and serve the region’s robust Brazilian community. Mass will be said in Portuguese, the predominant language of Brazil. St. Anthony will be responsible for making the building fit for services, Coyle said.

Vigil-keepers at St. Therese were surprised yesterday by the plan for their church, unaware until contacted by the Globe.

“Oh, my God,’’ said Lee Pratto, a senior citizen who slept many nights in the church during the vigil. “I suppose this is now an extra place for people to go to Mass. That’s a good thing.’’

The archdiocese is in negotiations to transfer one other closed church, St. Jeremiah in Framingham, to a congregation of Eastern Rite Catholics that has been worshipping there.

Under canon law, which can translate inelegantly from Latin, O’Malley has officially decreed the six churches “relegated for profane use,’’ a phrase that uses an old definition of profane, meaning nonreligious.

Canon law also allows opponents another opportunity for appeals that could extend to Rome. The appeals that concluded last year dealt with the displacement of parish communities when each church closed six years ago. Yesterday’s decision by O’Malley would be treated as a separate appeal.

The Friends of St. Frances say they have already filed in Vatican courts to prevent O’Malley from moving ahead to sell the buildings. But archdiocesan spokesman Terrence Donilon said that there is nothing to appeal until the decree takes effect Monday and that the first step before taking the matter to Rome would be an appeal to the cardinal.

The cardinal made the decision to sell the churches after consulting with religious and lay members across the archdiocese and after soliciting public comments from the region’s 1.8 million Roman Catholics.

Several hundred people registered continued opposition to the plans, said Donilon. Many others said it was time to move on.

“I want you to know I have heard you,’’ O’Malley said in a statement. “I appreciate your strong commitment to your parish. What I have heard from these consultations is that we have reached a point as a community of believers where we must relegate these church buildings as part of the continuing healing and rebuilding of the archdiocese.’’

The vigil protesters could remain a tricky problem for church officials, who for years have steered away from confrontation and appear eager to avoid the unseemly sight of Catholic faithful being hauled out of church buildings or arrested en masse for trespassing.

“We’re going to continue to communicate with them,’’ said Donilon. He said that the archdiocese is not looking to force people from the buildings, and that “it will be some time’’ before the churches are sold. “But this is not going to go on forever.’’

The specific fate of each church is still to be determined by the cardinal, in consultation with advisers. But the buildings are likely to be appraised and marketed. The archdiocese would prefer redevelopment plans that support the church’s mission, such as converting the buildings to affordable housing.

Sacred objects from the churches would be relocated to active parishes.

Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Vivian Yee contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.