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Archdiocese moves to sell St. Frances

Posted by dinouye  July 14, 2011 12:57 PM

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By Mark Arsenault, Globe staff

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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 today. The decrees satisfy a requirement under canon law that allows the archdiocese to pursue bids to sell the properties for redevelopment.

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

A highly organized group of protesters at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, in Scituate, for instance, has worked in shifts for years to maintain an around-the-clock presence.

Two other closed churches, in Everett and Framingham, will live on as houses of worship, O’Malley has decided.

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

O’Malley, who had promised not to sell the buildings until the appeals to Rome were exhausted, is now asking vigil 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 Very Rev. Arthur M. Coyle, the cardinal’s liaison on the long process to prepare the churches for sale.

The protesters, who had anticipated the move by the cardinal, promised today to continue their fight.

“Each of the six parish groups is ready to take this issue all the way to the Vatican’s highest court,” said Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, a lay Catholic group that has contested church closings in the archdiocese.

In addition to St. Frances, the churches affected by the cardinal’s 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.

The archdiocese is expected to eventually seek bids to buy and redevelop 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.

Another church that has been in limbo for years, St. Therese, in Everett, will survive, though not as a stand-alone parish. The church will be assigned to St. Anthony parish, also in Everett, and used to serve the region’s robust Brazilian community. Mass will be said in Portuguese, the native language of Brazil. St. Anthony will be responsible for repairs to make the building fit for services, Coyle said.

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.

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

Under canon law, which can translate inelegantly from Latin, O’Malley has officially decreed the six closed churches “relegated for profane use,” a phrase that uses an old definition of “profane,” meaning nonreligious. It is a step required before the buildings can be sold for secular redevelopment.

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

He has not yet said what he will do if more appeals are filed.

The cardinal made the decision to sell the six 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 Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese. 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.”

Church officials notified vigil protesters today of the cardinal’s decision. The protesters have given little sign that they intend to abandon vigils they have maintained for years.

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

“We’re going to continue to communicate with them,” Donilon said. He said the archdiocese is not looking to force people out of the buildings, and “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 building is still to be determined by the cardinal, in consultation with his advisers. But the buildings are likely to be appraised and marketed for sale. 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, such as statues and stained glass windows, would be relocated to active parishes around the archdiocese.

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