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Parishes appeal to Vatican

Hold out hope that churches reopen

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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A group of local Catholics protesting the 2004 closures of their parishes by the Archdiocese of Boston are awaiting the results of an appeal to one of the Vatican’s highest tribunals.

The case on behalf of the Boston-area parishes, including St. James the Great in Wellesley, St. Anselm in Sudbury, Sacred Heart in Natick, and St. Jeremiah in Framingham, was presented to the Apostolic Signatura on Friday, said Bill Bannon, a spokesman for the Council of Parishes.

The Signatura — which ranges from a tribunal of five to a full colloquium of several dozen priests — meets in private, often takes weeks or months to make decisions, and issues those written decisions in Latin, by mail. It isn’t known how long they will deliberate on the Boston-area church appeals, or how many members will participate in the process, Bannon said.

The parishes, which were among about 60 marked for suppression by the Boston Archdiocese in 2004, began their appeals process locally in 2005. After applications to keep the parishes intact were rejected by Cardinal Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, the appeals went to a lower Vatican council in 2007 and finally this year to the Apostolic Signatura — the Vatican’s version of a Supreme Court, Bannon said.

A group of 10 Boston parishes, which include the four local churches, are among some 70 parishes nationwide that are fighting closure or appealing a diocese’s original decision to suppress them, and are hoping to have their cases heard by the Roman judicial body in the coming year.

Bannon said the Council of Parishes, formed to support the local churches that were suppressed more than five years ago, is not expecting Rome to reverse O’Malley’s rulings.

“The odds of a favorable decision are close to zero,’’ he said. “But you never know until you know. We are just waiting to hear something.’’

Bannon said local Catholics intend to keep round-the-clock vigils in churches of supressed parishes, fighting their closure, even if the Vatican rules against them. A few weeks ago, local Catholics supporting the efforts to get parishes reopened sent a letter to O’Malley, again requesting a local mediation session, said Mary Beth Carmody, a leader of the vigil at St. Jeremiah.

“The cardinal has to respect what the parishes have done and realize that they have lasted five years in vigil because they ought never to have been closed,’’ said Carmody.

But Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said O’Malley had no intention of agreeing to mediation with the closed parishes. “That’s not an option,’’ he said. “They took the appeal process and we hope that a decision is rendered soon. These vigils need to end; they cannot go on forever.’’

Donilon said the archdiocese has been issuing the same invitation to its estranged parishioners for more than five years.

“We want them to join us. There are 291 parishes that are open and doing magnificent work, and if you look at the contributions these folks are making to their closed parishes, and think about what they could do, it’s sad we can’t convince them to join us,’’ he said.

The churches appealing to the Vatican “want something that is not a Catholic parish. They are rejecting the basic structure [of the church]. That is not acceptable to us and will never be acceptable to us. We want this to end — peacefully and prayerfully,’’ Donilon said.

Carmody said she is optimistic about the prospects of a reprieve from Rome.

“I think that we would hope that the Signatura would get it right,’’ she said.

St. Jeremiah maintains an around-the-clock vigil even though the church building is not closed, vur rather designated for use by the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church of Boston, a group of Indian Catholics.

St. James the Great in Wellesley was closed by the archdiocese in 2004, and church members have been in vigil for more than five years. Sacred Heart in Natick was suppressed and closed; St. Anselm remains open as a rectorate.

More than 80 people support the Framingham vigil, and 200 families still consider St. Jeremiah their spiritual home, Carmody said. Its members celebrated several Holy Week events last month with the St. James congregants at the closed Wellesley church on Route 9, including Holy Thursday with a lay-led service that was attended by more than 100 people.

She said the Framingham vigilers had no plans to stop if the Vatican denies their appeal.

Carmody said the vigilers want a peaceful resolution that keeps their churches open.

“We are not going back to what they asked us to do five years ago. We have come so far beyond that in terms of our faith and commitment to our communities,’’ she said. “No matter what Rome does, we are in a new place and we need to resolve this locally. It makes no sense to cause further harm to these [parish] communities.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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