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'My parishioners know where my allegiance lies,' says the Rev. Ron Coyne of St. Albert the Great, 'where my time is spent: in their parish.'
"My parishioners know where my allegiance lies," says the Rev. Ron Coyne of St. Albert the Great, "where my time is spent: in their parish." (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)

Man in the middle

Pastor directs closing of his church while supporting the fight to keep it open

WEYMOUTH -- On Sunday, the Rev. Ron Coyne greeted worshipers at the 9 a.m. Mass, visited sick parishioners at a hospital, helped the pastoral council sort through boxes of records in the rectory, and renewed a couple's wedding vows for their 50th anniversary. That was all before the 11 o'clock Mass, after which he lingered with parishioners, wolfed some lunch, celebrated a 2 p.m. wedding, made home visits to ailing parishioners, conducted the 6 p.m. Mass, and had dinner with a church family. All in all, it was a typical Sunday.

This summer, he's added another job to his regular duties, one he didn't ask for and doesn't want: helping to close down the parish he loves. His boss, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, has said it must happen, and so Coyne, a priest of 31 years, must comply. But at the same time, he's supporting parishioners' spirited battle to keep the parish open.

Coyne, 57, is walking a tightrope between what his head tells him -- that there are certain closing duties he must perform -- and what his heart tells him -- that it shouldn't be happening.

St. Albert the Great is among 82 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston targeted to close by year's end in a controversial reconfiguration plan that's the result of declining attendance, financial problems, the poor condition of many churches, and a shortage of priests. St. Albert's meets none of the archidiocese's criteria for closing: Its pews and coffers are full, its buildings in good shape, its sacramental index high.

So parishioners are not idly waiting for the locks to be changed at noon on Sept. 1. They have held prayer vigils. They have filed a canon appeal. They have hired attorneys to sue the archdiocese. They have met with the attorney general's office, seeking an injunction. They have considered buying the church property. Even the children have gotten into the act, holding their own crusade and carrying signs that say "Save Our Church" and "Let the Children Be Heard."

But barring a miracle -- or an injunction -- St. Albert's will close in three weeks. Parishioners are angry at the archdiocese, which they feel got them into this mess, starting with the sexual abuse scandal that caused a drop in attendance and collections. They're upset at the reconfiguration process picking their healthy parish to close over others where the pews are half full, the coffers empty, and the buildings decrepit.

The man in the middle is Coyne, who arrived at St. Albert's 2 1/2 years ago, in the midst of the abuse crisis, and transformed it from a church with dwindling numbers and few programs to a vibrant parish where Mass is often standing room only. When he arrived, the church owed the archdiocese $153,000 and had $63,000 in outstanding bills. All were paid off by last spring. Coyne has added numerous programs, including girls softball and color guard teams, boys hockey, a health-care ministry, and a spiritual book group. He lent strong support when a Voice of the Faithful chapter formed and became one of the South Shore's most active.

Since May 25, when the letter of closure arrived from the archdiocese, Coyne has been a perpetual motion machine, trying to find homes for the athletic teams and color guard, the health-care ministry, and the Voice of the Faithful chapter. He has rearranged 15 weddings that were scheduled for the fall. He has sent letters to the other four priests in Weymouth, with a list of everyone involved in the various parish programs. He included the names of every child in the religious education program "so they'll know who the families are."

He has sent a letter to every family listing all four parishes and their religious education directors. Next week, he will meet with chancery officials to seek permission for parishioners to remove the 55 stained glass windows of the saints for which some parishioners paid $3,000 each in 2000. And who, he worries, will pick up the caseload of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which provides emergency food, bedding, clothes, and electricity for the poor in the parish?

Like a reluctant home seller, Coyne has shown the grounds to an appraiser and an archdiocese facility manager. Next week auditors will arrive to check the books. And recently he welcomed three other Weymouth priests who have first dibs on items from the church and rectory.

Sacred Heart will get the organ. St. Jerome will take some rectory furniture. St. Francis Xavier is getting the manger (the priests had to draw names for that one). Immaculate Conception is reportedly interested in the oriental rugs.

If he feels any pain about seeing his rectory and church being picked over by his colleagues, Coyne doesn't show it. "It's upsetting to me only because this thing should never have happened," he said after Mass on Sunday. "There's absolutely no reason." He ruffled kids' hair and shook hands with parishioners, who lingered to ask about the closing. In the parking lot, women sold "Keep St. Albert's Open" bumper stickers and T-shirts. "My God, the life here!" Coyne exclaimed. "They're going to squelch this life!"

During the 11 a.m. Mass, he had told parishioners the church, led by its pastoral council, is pursuing litigation in an effort to keep St. Albert's open. "It's ground-breaking," he said. "We're convinced we need to do it. Even if we don't win, our children will benefit because our church will be much healthier. The church [hierarchy] will be held more accountable." With $40,000 raised toward a $100,000 goal for the legal fund, he put out a call for 600 parishioners to give $100 each.

At pastoral council meetings, where strategy is being plotted, Coyne serves as a troubleshooter and a cheerleader. How does he see his role in the conflict between his bosses and his parishioners? "My parishioners know where my allegiance lies, where my time is spent: in their parish. I join with them in fighting this battle, but it's their parish. Pastors come and go. I happen to be here at a traumatic time in their lives."

Diverse parishioners
St. Albert's draws people from other parishes in town and throughout the South Shore. Lou Rizzo grew up in another parish in Weymouth but wasn't finding what he needed. During the sexual abuse crisis, he and his wife stopped going to church. "We were disillusioned," he said. But in April 2003, when his oldest son, a Marine, was shipped off to Iraq, he walked into the 6 p.m. Mass at St. Albert's. "I was just blown away listening to Father Coyne. I went home and said to my wife, `You have to come hear this guy.' " Rizzo is now cochairman of the pastoral council at St. Albert's.

After Mass Sunday, a young couple handed Coyne a book, "Spirits in Spacesuits." Inside, they had written: "Thanks for everything. You have helped to bring us back to the Catholic church." Coyne knows some have left St. Albert, seeking a more conservative Catholicism but that many more have come back "seeking a faith that is a lived experience."

There are those who believe Coyne -- not the church -- is the real target in the closing. The progressive, outspoken priest has long been a thorn in the side of the archdiocese. He was among 58 priests who signed a letter calling on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign during the sexual abuse scandal. He has been called to the chancery on four occasions to answer questions about his views. He has said that Catholicism, with its dwindling number of parishioners and priests, must look to its Episcopal brethren for its future. "We have to deal honestly with the issue of married priests, with women being ordained and with gays in our society, our church and the priesthood," he said. "What's the archdiocese going to do? Keep closing churches? Obviously, a male celibate priesthood isn't attracting people. We either die, or we look at new visions of priesthood."

Another issue that has prickled the chancery has been Coyne's comments on confession. He's noted the lack of people confessing and has preached that the fear of God has taken a back seat to "God's unconditional love" in people's lives today. "I'm not telling people not to come to confession," he said. "They're just not coming. They're not worried about going to hell." Does he believe in hell? "No." But he does believe in heaven and eternal life. "We used to think having all the answers was the right thing. My role as priest is not to give all the answers, but to help people figure out the right questions."

As for his own future, Coyne would like to remain a parish priest -- preferably at St. Albert's. He has said he has no reason to believe he is being punished but "when it comes to future assignments, I might know better."

Taking action
Colin Riley, who's raising two children at St. Albert's, has watched Coyne change throughout the summer. "I'd say initially he felt overwhelmed and stressed believing he's the reason the archdiocese chose to close St. Albert's because there's no other reason." Riley stressed, "not a soul at St. Albert's faults Father Coyne for the archbishop's decision."

In July, Riley said, resignation seemed to set in. "He made it very clear to the parish . . . how overwhelmingly difficult appealing a closing would be." But as the summer progressed, Coyne seemed re-energized, assisting the pastoral council in its strategy sessions and questioning the archdiocesan leadership from the pulpit and in the bulletin. "The archdiocese does not appreciate critics from within," Riley said. "In fact, they have cleaned them out with regularity. I believe he [Coyne] has really put himself on the line like never before."

Lately, the Sunday bulletin has turned into a death watch of sorts, as Coyne offers updates on the impending closing. Last week, he wrote: "Some suggestions were made we should be obedient to the archdiocese . . . These comments are from people whose parishes aren't closing. I wonder if they would be so `obedient' if it was their parish that was selected." He added he's proud of his parish for fighting. "People in authority do make mistakes and we believe this decision is a major mistake. Shame on us if we don't help them to realize their mistakes."

In another column shortly after the closing decree arrived, Coyne noted at the top of the document were the words "In Nomine Domine" -- in the name of the Lord. "I wonder," he wrote, "what the Lord thinks of all this."

A mid-July bulletin entry reveals Coyne's feelings about what makes a good priest and bishop. O'Malley had written to priests asking for bishop nominations and included a list of criteria that the Vatican looks for: "Do they have a good reputation? Do they firmly hold the orthodox faith? Are they devoted to the Apostolic See? Are they outstanding for their piety? Do they have an aptitude for governing?"

Coyne wrote O'Malley back and included his own criteria for future bishops: "Extensive pastoral experience. Vatican II enthusiast. Ability to have honest conversations with priest and faithful. Good preacher. Open to learning as well as to teaching. Faithful to the gospel and open to God's spirit. Able to offer hope-filled leadership." He never heard back.

But last week Coyne had his first meeting with O'Malley. Instead of a homily on Sunday, he described the session to parishioners. He said he told the archbishop he and his flock felt the closing of their parish was unfair and planned to fight it "all the way to the end of the process no matter where it takes us." He spoke of the low morale among priests ("I'm one of the happy ones") and, at the end, told O'Malley what was important to him: "God loves me unconditionally. Jesus is the son of God. There is life after death." O'Malley listened intently but said little, according to Coyne.

Though the priests of churches that are closing have met with the personnel board of the archdiocese, Coyne said he will not apply for another job until Sept. 1. From the pulpit Sunday, he told parishioners he didn't know what the

future held for him or for St. Albert's. "We're in this together," he said.

Last Rites
The Globe profiles St. Albert the Great parish in Weymouth as it prepares to be closed.
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