Every Holy Week for the past three years, parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel have stayed true to the traditions of their 103-year-old church, passing out palms, shrouding the saints' statues on the altar, and setting up the large wooden cross on which they place candles in memory of loved ones. The only thing missing was a priest.
But this year will be different.
Bishop Robert Hennessey will say Easter Mass at the East Boston church next Sunday, marking the first time since the parish went into vigil in October 2004 that the church has hosted a Holy Week Mass.
"Some of us have forgotten what it's like," said Gina Scalcione, who has led the efforts to defy the order by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston closing the church. "This vigil is depriving us."
Though the church offers weekly services with a lay minister, Mass has been said only a handful of times since the vigil began, and, until now, the archdiocese has refused parishioners' requests for Mass on the high holy days, Christmas and Easter.
But Hennessey, an auxiliary bishop who was pastor for 12 years at the nearby Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston, has a special place in his heart for his former neighbors. He celebrated a Mass there on a feast day last summer and has performed several funerals there.
"The last time he came, we had a full house," said Maria D'Agostino, who has attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel for more than 50 years. "It's like if you know the president's coming, everyone comes out of the woodwork."
News of the Mass provided a much-needed lift for the parishioners, who said they have continued their operations with little contact from church leaders.
"It's been up and down," Scalcione said. "I'm trying not to let this build my hopes up."
Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said parishioners should not read the Mass as an indication that church leaders are softening their position.
"It doesn't change the fact that this is a closed parish," he said. "Bishop Hennessey has a strong connection to the community in East Boston. . . . Obviously, the cardinal supports him in his efforts there."
O'Malley has closed 62 parishes since 2004 to address an anticipated shortage of priests, financial struggles triggered by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and a push to streamline staffing.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of five churches in the archdiocese whose parishioners are resisting orders to close. Church leaders' response to requests for priests at those parishes has varied, said Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, a group that opposes church closings.
Parishioners at St. Jeremiah Church in Framingham have had regular Sunday Masses since they went into vigil in May 2005. The archdiocese provided a priest to St. James the Great Church in Wellesley for Christmas services in 2004, 2005, and 2006.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate and St. Therese Church in Everett have not had a priest say a Mass on a high holy day since the vigils began, Borre said. Parishioners at St. Frances requested a Holy Week Mass in January but have not received a response from the archdiocese, Borre said.
"The archdiocese handling shows a high degree of favoritism," he said. "They are using the sacrament of Mass as a bargaining chip."
In a phone interview, Donilon said the archdiocese is working to build bridges with all the parishes in vigil.
"These are good Catholics," he said. "We don't want to lose these people as Catholics."
Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.