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LAST RITES

St. Albert's parishioners stay vigilant

WEYMOUTH-- In the guest book in the church foyer, 9-year-old Jill Riley had written a message to the Rev. Ron Coyne: "Christmas is coming! I can't wait!!!! Everyone wishes you well and hopes you are doing OK. Merry Almost Christmas!"

Mike Carr, home for the weekend from his first semester at Catholic University, had scrawled, "You're all still here! I am so happy to return and see you are all still fighting. 'No surrender, no retreat!' "

Inside the church, the pews were full. An elderly man's wheelchair, jutting out in the aisle, bore on its back the ubiquitous bright yellow bumper sticker: "Keep St. Albert's Open."

From the young to the old, hundreds of parishioners filed into St. Albert the Great yesterday for prayer service and special activities to mark today's 100th day anniversary in round-the-clock vigil. Mary Akoury, head of the pastoral council, thanked parishioners for their commitment to the cause since the church was officially closed by the Archdiocese of Boston on Aug. 29. After the last Mass that day, parishioners refused to leave the building, and have occupied the church since. Their actions have sparked seven other churches to follow suit.

"As a parish, we never saw ourselves as extraordinary; in fact, quite the contrary," Akoury told parishioners. "I see ourselves as average, with the aspirations and dreams that anyone would have for themselves and their families." But she acknowledged that their actions were anything but ordinary. "What did we do? In very simple terms, we took on the archdiocese. Or, to be more polite, we challenged the archdiocese."

But for the absence of their former priest, Ron Coyne, the church looks very much like any other Catholic church during the Advent season. There are flowers on the altar. Two of the candles on the Advent wreath are lit. A Christmas tree at the front of the church bears name tags for needy children; piled beneath are dozens of gifts. A nearby basket holds grocery store coupons for the poor. The children of the church have made and sent dozens of colorful Christmas cards to local troops serving abroad. A collection is being taken to send them toiletries.

Outside, the creche is on display. On the front of the church hangs a new sign: "The Impossible . . . We Do Right Away. Miracles Take a Little Longer." The front doors are framed by huge wreaths, and an 8-foot outdoor Christmas tree was lit last night, followed by carols, cookies, and cocoa. Only the rectory next door remains dark.

But yesterday's church bulletin held a message from Coyne, who has returned to his family home in West Roxbury. "I miss all of you, the parish and the Church very much. I am in touch with your pastoral council leadership and am aware of all the responsibility you have taken in the St. Albert community. It reminds me of the early Church when everything was held in common and everyone used their gifts and talents for the good of all."

Those gifts and talents have indeed been put to use at the church, which has begun a plethora of classes, including knitting, holiday cake and cookie decorating, slate painting, Bible studies, yoga, and wreath-making. The knitting class is working on "chemo caps" to be donated to cancer centers. A book group is scheduled to start in January, and the health care ministry, run by the nurses in the congregation, has started back up.

Anne-Marie McCarthy, a retired nurse who heads the health care ministry, says she feels honored to be part of the parish, even though it is no longer recognized by the church hierarchy. "I think it's what a church is supposed to be," she said. "It's family."

Indeed, Friday night is "Family Night" at St. Albert's, with parents and children bringing sleeping bags, and with movies such as "Harry Potter" and "Shrek" for the kids. "People are putting their bodies where their theology is," said parishioner Jerry Smith, a worship leader. "It's so comforting to drive here at night and see the lights on and know you can come in and pray."

Prayer services and the rosary continue to be held twice daily, except for one service on Sunday. Communion is given, with consecrated host from an unidentified source. On Saturday, three bus loads of parishioners spent the day at LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro. On Dec. 17, two buses will take people to see the Rockettes at the Wang Center. And in January and February, religious retreats are planned.

Each week, the pastoral council meets to discuss payment of bills, the status of the lawsuit against the archdiocese and the canon appeal to Rome, as well as mundane matters such as snow shoveling and housekeeping. Some 20 committees have been formed to run the church, which has a balance of more than $20,000 in general funds and another $90,000 remaining in the legal fund.

Last week's meeting centered around an unannounced -- and unwelcome -- visit from the Codman Co., which has been hired by the archdiocese to manage the closed church properties. When the Codman representatives came before Thanksgiving, they were turned away. But they returned a week later with Weymouth police officers, who said Codman has a legal right to walk the property. Many parishioners said they considered the visit harassment by the archdiocese.

Through its public relations firm, the Rasky/Baerlein Group, the archdiocese would only say: "The commitment of the parishioners of St. Albert's is obvious to us all. We continue to seek ways to help them understand that the reasons for reconfiguration are related to the financial health of the diocese as a whole and not each individual parish." The archdiocese has said that 83 of the 357 parishes must close because of declining attendance and collections due in part to the priest sex abuse scandal, as well as a shortage of priests and decrepit buildings.

The archdiocese has been loath to evict parishioners, but has indicated that the standoffs cannot continue indefinitely. Some observers wonder if the chancery is waiting for the legal and canon appeals to be resolved before making a move. Others are hopeful that an outside review committee will recommend that some churches be saved.

At St. Albert's, "hope" seems to be the mantra. But with the holidays approaching, the pastoral committee is nervous about vigil volunteers. And a plea was made from the pulpit yesterday for more people to sit in on weekend days. After hospitality hour, caravans of cars bearing wreaths, food, and drink took off to visit the other churches maintaining vigils.

At St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate, which has been occupied since Oct. 24, parishioner Mary Ellen Rogers met the St. Albert's contingent at the door. "Thank you," she said, "for being our inspiration." 

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