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NEWTON

Two churches neither open nor closed

Archdiocese indecision leaves parishes dangling

Two years ago today , the Boston Archdiocese announced that two Newton parishes -- St. Bernard Church and Mary Immaculate of Lourdes -- would close. The announcement devastated parishioners there, and they mobilized, lobbied, and held vigils to argue against their closure.

The arguments worked. Sort of.

Neither parish has closed. But they're not exactly open, either. They are, well, in a state of flux, and are among the last holdouts in a painful closure process that began in 2004.

``Limbo has been abolished theologically, but it has been a place many Catholics have been sitting for an extended period of time," said Brian Yates , a member of the Board of Aldermen and a parishioner at Mary Immaculate.

Since May 2004, the archdiocese has closed 62 of its 365 parishes. There are 14 others, including two in Newton, with no closing date set.

``I expect the cardinal to make a decision on each of these at the appropriate time, but nothing is imminent," said Terrence C. Donilon , spokesman for the archdiocese.

He declined to elaborate on the Newton parishes , but there are clues that a decision could be coming soon: Parishioners at Mary Immaculate were told on Sunday that a decision is expected next month, and a meeting with parishioners at Mary Immaculate and St. Philip Neri, another small Newton parish that was not initially ordered to close, is scheduled for June 6.

It is unclear when two other Newton parishes that could close, St. Bernard and Corpus Christi, will hear their fate.

Initially, the archdiocese planned to close St. Bernard and Mary Immaculate, but Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley reopened the process in December 2004.

St. Bernard and Mary Immaculate would remain open as ``fully functioning" parishes, he said, and parishioners would ``enter into a period of reevaluation and to provide recommendations within the next year."

Since that time, groups of parishioners from two clusters -- St. Bernard's and Corpus Christi, and Mary Immaculate and St. Philip Neri -- have met multiple times but have not been able come to a consensus on which parish should close.

They each wrote down the reasons that they felt their church should be the one to remain open.

Philip Neri has a weekly Mass in Korean that is attended by Koreans from many Boston-area communities. Mary Immaculate has historic stained glass windows and is in a convenient location for many Needham residents. St. Bernard is a large parish on valuable property that includes a school. Corpus Christi in Auburndale is located in a good geographic area and has a growing number of young parishioners.

Essentially, they passed the buck to the archdiocese.

``People are tired of the whole thing," said Joe Drake , cochairman of Friends of St. Bernard. ``People are trying to remain positive -- we're still very active in church affairs -- but it's a big unknown. It still feels as though we're in limbo."

At St. Bernard, religious education courses were offered this year, but because the confirmation program lasts two years and no one knows if the church will be open that long, parents are taking their children to other parishes this year for confirmation classes.

The number of services has been cut. The parish once had four Masses on the weekend; now it has two.

Some hold out hope that the archdiocese will decide not to close any Newton parish.

A more likely scenario, parishioners say, could be a chapel arrangement, in which one church would be kept open and fully functioning and another would be allowed to stay open but only for a limited number of activities.

The chapels have no resident priest and no formal standing in the organization of the Archdiocese of Boston.

The archdiocese has converted former parishes into chapels in nearly a dozen cases, including in Brookline, Lincoln, and Sudbury. Some have gone smoothly; others have created disputes.

``There's a lot of nervousness," Yates said. ``People are very tense. We're just worried. It could go the wrong way."

Regardless of what the decision by the archdiocese is, protests among highly organized parishes will likely be organized, just as they were two years ago when the initial announcement came.

``We would continue to fight, absolutely," Drake said. ``That will entail a number of things. Chances are, it will involve a vigil, it will involve legal action."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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