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The Rev. Ron Coyne walked to the altar at St. Albert the Great on a Sunday.
The Rev. Ron Coyne walked to the altar at St. Albert the Great on a Sunday. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
LAST RITES

'They're throwing us away'

As Sunday nears, St. Albert's parishioners grapple with the prospect of gathering to worship one last time

One in an occasional series about a parish facing its closing

WEYMOUTH -- Last Sunday's church bulletin tells most of the story: The organist and soloist bidding farewell to parishioners, $90,000 being raised for a legal fund, no collection to be taken during the final two weekends of St. Albert the Great's life ("You have contributed above and beyond our needs"), and the Voice of the Faithful chapter continuing to seek a new home. There was more: A St. Albert's website is being developed for updates on a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston, the church has extended its hours this week for those who want to spend extra time there, and the other four parishes in Weymouth are happy to welcome St. Albert's worshipers into their pews.

It was one long obituary -- for a patient with healthy vital signs. And this patient, 54 years old, is not going gently into the night. Parishioners have filed a canon appeal, hired a law firm to sue the archdiocese, and are seeking an injunction through the attorney general's office. This week the church's pastoral council asked the archdiocese for an extension pending appeals, at least until Dec. 31.

The last Mass is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday. At noon next Wednesday, the Codman Company, hired by the archdiocese, will change the locks. St. Albert the Great, born in a bowling alley down the street, will cease to exist.

It is among 82 churches targeted for closing under an archdiocesan reconfiguration plan resulting from declining attendance, financial problems, the poor condition of many churches, and a shortage of priests. St. Albert's meets none of the announced criteria for closing: Its pews and coffers are full, its buildings in good shape.

Grieving parishioners have likened the closing to a death in the family, but an unnecessary death, one where a healthy patient was killed by a bungling doctor. The archdiocese has deemed that St. Albert's must close because Weymouth can no longer support five Catholic churches.

"I'm a 74-year-old widow who has really found a place where I feel loved," said Mary Santry. "It's like my husband dying all over again. It's a crime. It's emotional abuse."

As the clock ticks inexorably toward the closing, emotions are running high at the pretty brick church in East Weymouth. At each of the four Masses last weekend, a pastoral council member asked people to stand if they agreed that the council should "take all steps necessary" to keep the parish open. Every person -- more than 1,800 in total -- stood. At one Mass, a woman in a wheelchair struggled to her feet.

The pastoral council has hired the law firm of Galvin & Ames, which plans to file a lawsuit against the archdiocese on several grounds -- including the argument that the church belongs to parishioners and not to the archdiocese.

Anxiety and anger

At each Mass last Sunday, every seat was taken. Parishioners stood in the back of the church and lined the outer aisles. The spillover, relegated to the foyer, strained to hear the Rev. Ron Coyne. From the choir loft hung a huge yellow banner: "Father Ron Coyne, You're the Best." In the jammed parking lot, cars bore yellow bumper stickers: "Keep St. Albert's Open."

Some people were teary-eyed. Others were angry.

"They're throwing us away," said Sharon Harrington, a lawyer who has attended St. Albert's for 25 years. "Once they close churches that are vibrant and financially secure, how can you ever trust that whatever church you join won't be closed?"

Michael Carr, 18, is the soloist at St. Albert's. He left for college this week, along with Brandon Santini, the 18-year-old organist. "This parish has so much vibrancy," said Carr, who is attending Catholic University. "I know I'm going away to college, but I figured I'd always have St. Albert's to come home to."

At the other end of the spectrum is 84-year-old Tillie Hajjar. She puts her feelings succinctly: "Who will close God's house? I never heard of anyone closing a church before."

The Hajjars were one of the original St. Albert's families. In 1950, Cardinal Richard Cushing wanted to create a new parish to serve the neighborhood. For three years, while the church was being built, Mass was held at the Hajjars' bowling alley and eatery just down the street. Five generations of Hajjars have attended St. Albert's, and the family has donated considerable money over the years.

"I never say no to Father Coyne," is how Zako Hajjar, Tillie's daughter, puts it. She was brought up in the parish, has raised her children in it, and now her grandchildren attend. "They're closing it just to sell the business and make money to pay for a mistake they made," she said, referring to the fallout from the priest sexual abuse scandal. "Why do we have to pay for a mistake they made? I feel like someone's taking our mother away," said Hajjar, who attends Mass every day.

Four years ago, St. Albert's commissioned 56 stained glass windows of the saints, with parishioners buying them for between $2,500 and $3,000 each. The Hajjars bought St. Bartholomew. "Maybe I'll put it in my house," said Zako. "From now on, the archdiocese isn't getting a single penny from me."

But at a meeting with chancery officials this week, Coyne got the word: The windows are considered "a completed gift" and won't be returned to the givers. The donors can designate where the windows go -- as long as the destination is Catholic-related. A church in Harwich wants 35 of them.

Amid anxiety and anger, grief and shock, Coyne is trying to tend to business as usual. "I'm not angry," he said. "My concept of God has given me so much peace with myself. I know God's spirit is definitely sustaining us all."

At Mass over the weekend, he described how his view of God has changed from that of his strict Catholic upbringing. "How many of you are afraid of God?" he asked the packed sanctuary. Perhaps 10 -- out of 450 -- raised their hands.

"How many of you were afraid of God?" At least half the members of the congregation raised their hands. "I'm one of them," Coyne said. He spoke of evolving Catholic scholarship and biblical studies and said some people are realizing that "our experience of God might be different from our ancestors'."

"Once you open up your heart and broaden your mind and look into your soul, you begin to look at things differently," he said. "You can . . . continue to believe everything you were taught, or you can develop an adult relationship with God. It can turn your life upside down, but it can make all the difference in your life. It has for me."

Coyne took over at St. Albert's 2 1/2 years ago, during the sex abuse scandal, and inherited a parish with dwindling attendance and increasing debt. Today the pews overflow and the debt is gone. The church this week divided its surplus among an AIDS shelter, a charity in Appalachia, and the Weymouth Food Pantry. That was just before archdiocese officials came, unannounced, to take the parish checkbook.

Difficult decisions

When one Catholic church closes in a community, another "welcoming parish" is often designated to take in the churchless parishioners. But in Weymouth the archdiocese did not select a welcoming parish. It's unlikely that parishioners would have obeyed anyway. St. Francis Xavier will hold the sacramental records of St. Albert's, and its priest will cover the nursing home that Coyne visited regularly. Sacred Heart has agreed to adopt the children's softball and hockey teams and the girls' color guard. The caseload of the St. Vincent de Paul Society -- which has provided emergency food, bedding, electricity, and clothes for Weymouth's poor -- will be split among the four remaining parishes.

As for the parishioners, many haven't decided where they'll go. Some refuse to consider the option, hoping that their church will yet be saved. Lou Rizzo, copresident of the pastoral council, and his wife have different ideas. "She would just as soon go to a Protestant church in Weymouth," said Rizzo. "Because of the way I was brought up, I would find it difficult to leave my Catholic faith, but I'm open-minded to it. Primarily I would like to see where Father Coyne is going to be reassigned, and if that were a reasonable commute for us, I would definitely follow him."

It's a refrain as familiar in the church as the alleluia.

"If Father Coyne were nearby, I'd go in a minute," said Don Gustafson, a parishioner for 38 years. "But I think they'll ship him out to the boonies somewhere."

Coyne, who describes himself as a progressive priest, was among 58 who signed a letter calling on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign during the abuse scandal. He has lent strong support to the parish's Voice of the Faithful chapter, one of the South Shore's most active. And he has been called to the chancery from time to time to answer questions about his views on women priests, homosexuality, celibacy, and other issues.

There are those who believe that churches with outspoken priests have been targeted for closure. John Creed, who was a priest for 14 years, lives in Kingston but attends St. Albert's because of Coyne. "I have not heard one iota from Father Coyne questioning the [Catholic] orthodoxy," he said. "And yet I really believe that place is closing because Bishop [Sean] O'Malley wants to solidify his conservative right-wing base. What I worry about is that he has lost these people at St. Albert's forever."

The archdiocese has denied targeting priests. At the start of the reconfiguration process, each geographic cluster of churches was told to choose one of its own to close. In Weymouth, St. Albert's was reluctantly chosen by the other four, partly because it is small and has no school.

Some at St. Albert's say they will simply stop going to church, or will find another denomination. "I've been a Catholic for 74 years," said Santry. "I may leave the Catholic religion completely. I may join the Episcopalians. I've certainly lost my trust in the archdiocese and the hierarchy in Rome."

George Kyller, 70, has gone to St. Albert's for 40 years, and he heads its Voice of the Faithful chapter. "This community is like my extended family," he said. "And in one fell swoop, the man in Boston destroyed all of that. He's won the battle, but he's lost the war. People are going to leave the church, or they're going to change the church."

Because no other Catholic church in Weymouth has agreed to host the Voice of the Faithful chapter -- despite O'Malley's decree that all activities of closing churches will be adopted by remaining parishes -- the September meeting will be held in the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant church that has offered the group space.

Mary Akoury, co-chairwoman of the pastoral council, has been at St. Albert's since 1968, raising her four children there. "To think about going this weekend, the last weekend. . . I'm trying to find the words. It's like losing a relative, someone you're very close and dear to. But when a relative passes away, you're given a reason why. We have not been given the reason why our parish is closing. So it's unresolved grief."

'The alpha and omega'

Coyne has met with the personnel board of the archdiocese and voiced his desire to remain a parish priest. He says if he does not hear anything by Wednesday he will return to his family home in West Roxbury.

"We all have decisions to make regarding our future," he wrote in last Sunday's bulletin. "I believe God's spirit will continue to lead us during this traumatic time. I came to St. Albert the Great -- together we made St. Albert the Greatest!"

Meanwhile, life continues at St. Albert's, at least for the next few days. Tomorrow's Comedy Night fund-raiser for the girls' color guard is sold out, and parishioners are busy baking bread for 2,000 that will be used in what are scheduled to be the church's last offerings of Communion. The pastoral council has managed to get Hajjar's restaurant -- where St. Albert's began -- the first Tuesday night of every month as a gathering spot for whichever parishioners want to come.

Anna O'Leary, a member of the pastoral council, was there when the parish began at Hajjar's bowling alley, and she will be there on Tuesday Sept. 7, back where it all started more than five decades ago.

"The alpha and omega," she said, "the beginning and the end."

She paused.

"But we're gonna stay open."

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