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Envoys' visit a surprise at Weymouth church sit-in

Two representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston walked into St. Albert the Great Church in Weymouth last night and announced that they had been sent by Archbishop Sean O'Malley to begin a dialogue aimed at ending the standoff between chancery and parish.

But parishioners expressed anger and frustration at the surprise visit of a priest and a nun, which came as the evening prayer service concluded. ''They just came unannounced," said Mary Akoury, co-chairman of the church's pastoral council. ''You don't do that. It was flawed, just as the reconfiguration process was flawed."

The two who showed up last night asked parishioners not to disclose their identities. Akoury said the group of about 100 parishioners who were present made it clear to the representatives that the proper process would be to schedule a meeting with the Pastoral Council.

The visit was made some three weeks into a round-the-clock prayer vigil maintained by parishioners to protest the closing of their church, which they are refusing to leave. The vigil began after the final Mass on Aug. 29; the church was officially closed by the archdiocese on Sept. 1. Under the reconfiguration plan, 82 churches are to be closed by year's end because of declining attendance and collections, a shortage of priests, and decrepit buildings.

St. Albert's meets none of the stated criteria for closing: its pews and coffers were full, its buildings in good shape. But the archdiocese has said that Weymouth can no longer support five Catholic churches.

Since their church was selected to close, St. Albert's parishioners have filed an unsuccessful canonical appeal with the archdiocese and are now appealing the closing to the Vatican. They also have hired lawyers and have filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese.

Last week, a Superior Court judge denied their request for an injunction barring the archdiocese from selling off property and assets. Judge Thomas E. Connolly said that the church belongs to the archdiocese; lawyers for the parishioners had argued that the archdiocese is merely a trustee for the people, who own the property.

Since the sit-in began at St. Albert's, another parish that was officially closed last week, followed suit. St. Anselm in Sudbury is now in its second week of a round-the-clock vigil. Members of a third church, St. Bernard of West Newton, which is scheduled to close Oct. 24, have also said they will refuse to vacate the premises.

The archdiocese has expressed frustration over the sit-ins, but has emphasized that it will not have parishioners forcibly removed from churches.

A spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, has said that O'Malley and his staff are looking at ''creative ways" of dealing with the situation. Coyne could not be reached for comment last night.

Akoury said she believes a meeting between the pastoral council and the archdiocese will be scheduled this week.

''We're grateful that the archdiocese has approached us, albeit in a flawed way," she said. ''But at least something has started."

One parishioner told the priest and nun that there had been numerous unanswered letters from St. Albert's parishioners to the archdiocese over the summer and suggested that those be read and replied to.

''It was a very respectful meeting," Akoury said. Each side listened to the other, she said. ''They agreed that coming unannounced was not the best way."

Akoury emphasized that the vigil will continue, saying: ''I think the resolve is still very strong. People are very committed to what we're doing."

Each night, several parishioners have been sleeping in the pews or on the church floor; each morning, others come to take their place. Sign-up sheets for volunteers are full. There are three lay-led prayer services every day, two on the weekend. Sunday's service drew 350 people.

Globe correspondent Justin Rebello contributed to this report.

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