Bella English

4 years in vigil, parishioners hold strong

By Bella English
Globe Columnist / November 2, 2008
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SCITUATE - A week ago, St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate celebrated its four years in vigil. Or, as the church bulletin put it: 1,461 days; 35,064 hours; 2,103,840 minutes.

Four years is a long time. It's the time we spent in high school, or college. It's one of President Bush's interminable terms. It's how often the Olympics come around. It's longer than some marriages last. And it seems to be about the same length of time as this year's presidential campaign.

For four years, more than two million minutes, parishioners at St. Frances Cabrini have held a round-the-clock vigil to keep the Archdiocese of Boston from closing them down.

The archdiocese, as part of its reconfiguration plan, targeted the church for closing on Oct. 25, 2004. In fact, their people had changed the locks on the church. But one back door accidentally remained open, and parishioners began their occupation. They know if they leave, the archdiocese will return with new locks. The church is one of five in the archdiocese that remain in vigil, and is the only one on the South Shore.

At the anniversary service, you'd hardly know anything was awry: there was the church bulletin, the missals, lovely music, lay readers, Scripture readings, a children's story, a reflection, an offertory and prayers. There was Communion, too, the host consecrated secretly by sympathetic priests.

A priest is the only thing that appears to be missing; the archdiocese won't assign one, and therefore, Mass cannot be celebrated.

Religious education classes are held twice a week. The Rosary is recited every Tuesday at 6:45 p.m. Services are Sundays at 10. There's a spaghetti supper on Nov. 14, a Christmas craft fair on Dec. 6. A Marian Hour of Prayer was held last Tuesday. The next Parish meeting is Nov. 11. St. Frances remains a dropoff location for the Scituate Food Pantry; boxes and cans fill the basket. Parishioners say they've never been closer as a parish, united in their common cause.

"Do we look like a closed church?" asked Maryellen Rogers, as parishioners mingled around tables groaning with pots of coffee and platters of cookies. Rogers, along with her husband Jon, has led the vigil since day one.

The couple was married in the church that she grew up in. The vigilers believe that the church belongs to the parishioners who built it in 1961, not to the archdiocese, and have filed lawsuits to that effect. Their arguments have been rejected by lower courts, and they are now in appeal before the SJC. In addition, a canonical appeal is pending in Rome.

To the faithful, it's clear. "It's an ownership issue. Who truly owns the property?" says Maryellen Rogers.

As she speaks, 91-year-old Elise MacIsaac says goodbye and heads home. MacIsaac was one of the founding members of the parish and went door-to-door raising funds for the building in 1960.

Not long before the locks were changed, she and others also raised money for a new roof, carpet, lights and the repointing of bricks. They purchased a $60,000 organ.

As Maryellen Rogers notes, parishioners have always been told by the archdiocese hierarchy that they are the church, that it belongs to the people. "It's always 'our' church from the altar, until they need to liquidate the assets to replenish their coffers depleted by the priest sex abuse crisis," she said.

St. Frances had one of the most notorious of those abusive priests. The Rev. Thomas P. Forry reportedly beat up his housekeeper twice and had a long-term affair with a woman whose son he beat and sexually abused. Though archdiocesan officials knew of the allegations, they kept Forry on at St. Frances for three more years without sanction. He later served as a chaplain in the Army, then as a prison chaplain, and finally as a part-time fill-in priest.

In the latter role, he was recognized by a parishioner in a Quincy church as the priest who molested him and his sister years earlier. Not until the abuse crisis erupted in headlines in 2002 was Forry removed from ministry. He was defrocked in 2006.

"How does the Archdiocese of Boston respond?" Jon Rogers asked from the altar last week. "Not with a gesture of compassion or reconciliation to an injured and suffering faith community. They announce they will appropriate our beloved church and then sell if off to the highest bidder."

Parishioners believe their church was targeted because of its prime location, just down the street from the Atlantic Ocean: 30 prime acres.

They have proposed compromises, including selling off 25 acres, sparing the church, parish center, and parking lot. They're also offering to buy the buildings from the archdiocese. "Rrepurchasing our church, in essence paying for it twice," said Jon Rogers, a financial planner. "The only thing not on the table is closure."

They realize there's a shortage of priests, and say they don't need one supplied by the archdiocese. They can pay for a retired priest, a mission priest, or visiting priests, they say. Above all, they want Cardinal Sean O'Malley to visit and speak to them.

According to a statement released by the archdiocese, representatives have attempted to resolve parishioners' concerns. "We remain committed to a peaceful resolution to the vigil at St. Frances church," it stated.

The statement said the vigilers have declined requests for "additional dialogue" with the archdiocese - something Jon Rogers vehemently denies. He said vigilers haven't been able to get a meeting with the cardinal since 2006, nor has anyone responded to their proposals or letters.

"We've done everything except lay down in front of their cars to get their attention," said Rogers.

Sharon Harrington was a vigiler at another church, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, before the archdiocese decided to reopen it. "These people," she said as she was leaving, "are in the forefront of what the Church will be. It's just a question of time."

Maryellen Rogers smiled. "And we have all the time in the world."

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at english

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