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Church closure fight cutting deep

O'Malley exits St. Peter after confrontation

A visibly agitated Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, making a rare visit to a parish he plans to close, last night abruptly walked out of the South Boston church, where parishioners were pleading with him to reverse course.

O'Malley had already greeted scores of Lithuanian-Americans at the close of an evening Mass at St. Peter Lithuanian Church, and had heard many of them beseech him not to close the 100-year-old church, when he got into a heated exchange with a female parishioner. He became obviously upset, and could be heard repeatedly saying the phrase, "You don't, you don't." The woman later told another parishioner there were tears in his eyes.

O'Malley's secretary, the Rev. Robert T. Kickham, stepped between the archbishop and the woman and ushered the archbishop into the sacristy and out a side door. About a dozen parishioners were left standing in the receiving line, and O'Malley skipped a reception in the church hall that he had planned to attend.

The parishioner who spoke with O'Malley declined to say what she said to the archbishop, and the archbishop's aides said they were not sure what transpired. But they said O'Malley was overwhelmed at the end of a long day, which also included a court hearing over a parish closing in Weymouth.

"It was not a good situation for any person to walk into tonight, given the level of rhetoric and pressure that is being put on the archbishop," said O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. "At times on a very stressful day, you reach the end of your rope and say, 'I've got to step away from this.' "

The occasion for O'Malley's visit was a special evening Mass, in English and Lithuanian, scheduled to accommodate the archbishop's schedule after he said he could not attend the small parish's 100th anniversary celebration next Sunday. O'Malley's aides had told parishioners he did not want to talk about the parish closing during the visit, according to parishioners.

But in a quiet act of rebellion, the parishioners used the time of collective prayers, called the prayers of the faithful, repeatedly to ask of God, "Please do not take this home away," as O'Malley sat a few feet away, in silence. In one prayer, the parishioners referred to their parish as "a spiritual home in Boston where Lithuanians can gather"; in another, parishioners referred to the church as an alternative to the persecution they had endured when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.

Church officials consider it inappropriate to use the prayers of the faithful for such pleadings. Coyne called the choice of prayers "unfortunate."

During the Mass, O'Malley made only a brief reference to his plans to close the parish. At the start of his homily, he said, "We are going through a very difficult time in the history of our church, a painful and a sad time, and I know that your parish community is particularly aggrieved and suffering because of the reconfiguration of parishes in our diocese. But tonight we gather with other sentiments as well, sentiments of thanksgiving for our faith and for 100 years of the faith community of this parish."

The parishioners of St. Peter, many of them upset with O'Malley for planning to close the church and for failing to acknowledge their many previous pleas for a meeting, had debated boycotting the archbishop's appearance at the church, which was scheduled after parishioners repeatedly sent letters asking why O'Malley had not responded to an invitation to attend their centennial celebration. The invitation had first been extended in August 2003.

But the parishioners decided to attend in the hopes that O'Malley might see something that would change his mind. Virtually all 300 in attendance wore buttons with the words, "Save St. Peter Lithuanian Parish South Boston," against a background in the red, yellow and green colors of the Lithuanian flag.

Then, as they greeted O'Malley at the close of Mass last night, many asked him to reconsider, saying things such as "please save us," "tend to your flock," and "please keep us in your prayers." Some were in tears; others told lengthy anecdotes about the plight of Lithuanians in Eastern Europe, or in the United States.

O'Malley has not set a date for the closing of St. Peter, one of 82 parishes he plans to close this year. He at first had said he planned to close the church by Sept. 1, but agreed to wait to allow the parish to celebrate its centennial. He then asked the parish to choose a closing date no later than Oct. 31; the parish council has refused and expects O'Malley to simply impose a closing date.

O'Malley has asked Boston Catholics to understand that he must close parishes because the archdiocese does not have enough money, priests, or worshipers to justify the 357 parishes that existed at the start of this year. There are seven parishes in South Boston; O'Malley plans to close two, St. Augustine and St. Peter.

Of the first 12 parishes the Boston Archdiocese designated for closure, seven appealed, but O'Malley denied all the appeals, according to Coyne. Parishioners at two parishes that have already been closed, Sacred Heart in the North End and St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, have filed civil suits attempting to prevent the archdiocese from taking the buildings or other assets.

The planned closures include Lithuanian parishes in Norwood and Cambridge, leaving one remaining Lithuanian parish, in Brockton, where the Lithuanian congregation is smaller than in Boston. But the archdiocese plans to transfer the pastor of St. Peter to another South Boston parish, St. Vincent de Paul, and allow him to celebrate a weekly Mass in Lithuanian at Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel on the Boston waterfront.

The St. Peter parishioners say they will appeal the closing to O'Malley and then to Pope John Paul II, and they are collecting money and consulting with a lawyer in anticipation of filing a civil suit to prevent the closing. In July in Lithuania, a group of demonstrators protested outside the Vatican embassy in Vilnius, and then in Boston a group protested outside the chancery in Brighton. And several Lithuanian government officials have urged O'Malley to reconsider.

"By closing our parish they're basically annihilating a Lithuanian ministry in Boston," said Gloria Adomkaitis, the chairwoman of both the parish council and the Friends of St. Peter Lithuanian Parish. "The church not only is our spiritual center, but also our cultural center, and by closing us they're basically kissing off the Lithuanian ethnic community."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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