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Shuttered church is sold for $2 million

Archdiocese, Eastern Rite group in pact

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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FRAMINGHAM - St. Jeremiah Catholic Church, one of a handful of shuttered area parishes where congregants held long-running protest vigils, has been sold for $2 million, the Archdiocese of Boston announced yesterday.

The church, rectory, land, and parking lot were sold to the small Indian Catholic community that has been using the church since 2008. The Syro-Malabar Eparchy, an Eastern Rite Catholic community from southern India, will establish St. Thomas, a new parish with its roughly 150 local families.

But the parishioners of St. Jeremiah say they will try to block the sale by requesting an emergency restraining order this week from the Congregation for the Clergy in the Vatican, according to Mary Beth Carmody, a leader of the vigil. Parishioners argue that the sale will improperly strip the church of its Latin Rite tradition.

“That’s a violation - a clear violation of canon law - and you cannot do it,’’ Carmody said in a phone interview yesterday afternoon.

The parishioners from St. Jeremiah sent Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley a letter on Aug. 3 that initiated another appeal to Rome, but the archdiocese never responded, Carmody said.

The archdiocese countered in an e-mail yesterday that the Vatican’s highest court upheld the cardinal’s decision to close St. Jeremiah after an appeals process that lasted more than six years.

Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, a canon law expert, and two other members of the archdiocese legal team met with vigil participants yesterday and informed them that the sale had been finalized on Friday. Parishioners from St. Jeremiah described the encounter as an intense, 90-minute meeting in which the archdiocese outlined its plans.

The archdiocese says the $2 million will be used to support other parishes in the Boston area.

For the archdiocese, the sale marks the end of St. Jeremiah Parish, which existed for half a century and was the home church of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher killed in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The parish was shuttered in 2005 as part of a wave of church closings.

In a statement issued by the archdiocese today, Edyvean said the sale will provide a much-needed church for the Syro-Malabar parishioners. He also noted that O’Malley had kept his word and did not sell the church until parish closing appeals had been exhausted in Rome.

“With sincere pastoral concern for the former parishioners of St. Jeremiah’s, the cardinal encourages all to join us in the work of healing and rebuilding the Archdiocese of Boston,’’ Edyvean said in the prepared statement.

The Syro-Malabar community has agreed to continue holding a Latin Rite Mass in English on Sundays for former parishioners.

For the past few years, parishioners from St. Jeremiah have also prayed the rosary daily, held a regular Communion service and potluck dinner on Saturdays, offered religious education to children attending kindergarten through 10th grade, and celebrated baptisms, reconciliations, and other sacraments except marriage. As recently as last week, a funeral was held there for a woman who had been a parishioner for 40 years.

“We’ve been basically operating as a parish in everything but name,’’ Carmody said. “We don’t expect it to slow down at all. It’s our hope that everything continues.’’

But it appears that the new owners will make some changes.

“I don’t think we can guarantee that all of that will stay as such, but what we have promised is a regular Mass on Sundays,’’ said Tomy Abraham, a spokesman for the Syro-Malabar community in Boston. Asked about the appeal to Rome, Abraham said it was “between the former parish of St. Jeremiah and the Archdiocese of Boston.’’

The Syro-Malabar trace their roots to the apostle St. Thomas and have about 3 million members worldwide, including roughly 100,000 in the United States, where their church is headquartered in suburban Chicago. The new parish established in the Framingham church will no longer be affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston, and instead will be a part of the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Diocese of Chicago.

“We sincerely hope and pray that, with the opportunity presented through this transaction, the Holy Spirit will guide us to support key pastoral themes and vital ministries of the archdiocese,’’ said the Rev. Varghese Naikomparambil of the Boston St. Thomas Syro-Malabar parish, in the statement issued by the Archdiocese of Boston.

The parishioners from St. Jeremiah and their Indian counterparts have developed a symbiotic relationship over the past few years. Syro-Malabar priests celebrate the Latin Rite Mass in English and members of the two parishes work side by side.

Last evening, about a dozen parishioners gathered at St. Jeremiah for their weekly Communion service, which concluded with the words: “Our celebration continues. Go in peace.’’

After the service, they gathered in a community room in the church basement for a dinner of pizza, chicken, and butternut squash. The parishioners’ legal team sounded confident as it outlined its next moves. The parishioners plan to press their case with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office as well as with the Vatican.

“I’m not surprised by the latest tactics by the archdiocese,’’ said John Camuso, 83, of Framingham, who has been a parishioner for 15 years. “From my point of view, this is them trying to move us out.

“The blessed Lord would not have closed this church,’’ he continued. “But they did and they are driving away the flock.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.