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Parishioners maintain a watchful eye on church

Christmas Day for Jimmy Chianca meant one-on-one time with God. Eight hours of it.

Chianca was the sole person holding vigil at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in East Boston yesterday. Other parishioners took a day off from protesting the church's October closing.

The 40-year-old postponed opening presents and eating a holiday spread of lasagna and macaroni with his family for something more pressing: making sure all the doors, except one at the entrance, remained locked at the 99-year-old brick church.

The instruction to keep an eye on doors was reinforced when neighbor Gina Scalcione, head of the three-dozen-member group fighting for the Italian-American parish's survival, dropped by in the afternoon with a plate of homemade biscotti, fried chocolate raviolis, and baklava.

"The doors," she reminded Chianca after discovering one left open. "Don't forget to check the locks."

Every 45 minutes, Chianca tested about a dozen doors -- whose locks had all been changed -- to prevent unwelcome visitors from slipping in. Unwelcome visitors such as police.

Even on Christmas, church protesters refused to let their guard down. They can't afford to, said Scalcione, citing the Christmas Day arrest of two South Natick parishioners who refused to leave the Sacred Heart Parish, scheduled to close today.

"It's disgraceful," Scalcione said. "Church is supposed to be a sanctuary. Police should never be allowed to remove people from their church. It's the people's church."

She said the latest arrests have kept the vigil participants wary.

"We're not afraid," she said. "It only makes us a little more aware of what can happen. You're a trespasser by law, even though you're holding a vigil."

Armed with cellphones and a phone tree, Scalcione said whoever's on duty would call a network of 35 parishioners who could be at the church in an flash. "They'd have to arrest everyone," she said.

Scalcione said she met with Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley last Sunday for permission to hold a midnight Mass at the church. He refused, telling her that allowing a priest to say Christmas Mass there would make it harder for members to adjust to their new church. Instead, she said, he told her to stop spending nights at the church because it wasn't safe.

But Scalcione, who lives five doors down from the church, continues to sleep there at least once a week. She has two favorite spots for her air mattress and blankets: in the loft next to the organ and in the Saints Room just inside the entrance. Before calling it a night, she slips two flat metal bars through slats along the front doors.

"It's perfectly safe because I'm in the house of God," Scalcione said.

Mt. Carmel has appealed its closure.

She said she wished the archdiocese had granted parishioners a one-day reprieve from protecting their churches so people could return to their families; she wanted a written promise that the archdiocese would not have tried to repossess the churches. Parishioners are holding round-the-clock vigils at seven other Massachusetts churches.

"Nobody told her to stay in the first place. [The archdiocese] already has possession," said Larry Rasky, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

"To the Catholic people who are holding vigils on Christmas Day, this is actually a punishment," Scalcione said. "It's a sacrifice, taking time away from the family."

Yet Chianca stood guard at the church he has attended since childhood. His family has lived in East Boston for more than 100 years. "I'm doing this for the neighborhood," he said.

Yesterday, he greeted occasional visitors who stopped by to pray, caught up on paperwork from his contracting job, watched ice skating on television.

And he prayed. "Making up for lost times," he said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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