Parishioners plead for papal intervention

St. James, closed since ’04, faces pressure to end vigil

Empty seats inside St. James the Great in Wellesley. A parish representative hand-delivered an appeal for its reopening to Pope Benedict XVI last week. Empty seats inside St. James the Great in Wellesley. A parish representative hand-delivered an appeal for its reopening to Pope Benedict XVI last week. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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WELLESLEY — Although the town is poised to turn their parish buildings into an athletic complex, and the Archdiocese of Boston is expected to ask them again to abandon their closed church this week, parishioners at St. James the Great in Wellesley, which will celebrate its sixth year in vigil on Sunday, say they aren’t going anywhere.

A parish representative hand-delivered a new plea for reconsideration to Pope Benedict XVI last week, an effort they hope will get the pontiff’s sympathy for their cause, said Suzanne Hurley, a St. James vigil spokeswoman.

The parishioners, who celebrate lay-led services every Sunday morning and are in the midst of preparing for Christmas season charity work, have no intention of abandoning their commitment to getting their parish reopened, she said. Between 30 and 60 people attend services regularly, and a smaller group of less than a dozen take turns spending nights in an office a few yards from the sanctuary.

“The archdiocese has said repeatedly that it would like to end [the stalemate] peacefully and prayerfully, and we would like to do that by opening our church,’’ she said.

Members of the parish plan to meet with the archdiocese today, and expect church officials to ask them to leave their church.

Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said last week that all appeals were exhausted and that there were no further options available to the parishioners, who had taken the case for St. James and several other Boston-area parishes to the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court.

Donilon said the archdiocese is hopeful the end to the vigil is near. “We have to find a way to end these vigils,’’ he said. “It isn’t a matter of anyone winning or losing. We want to encourage them to come to work with us in a parish that is open. They have demonstrated so much passion and dedication and we want them to help us with the work of the archdiocese.’’

But St. James parishioners said the appeals process is not complete. They recently joined a group of eight other parishes closed by the archdiocese in 2004 — including St. Jeremiah in Framingham, which stays in constant vigil although its building is now is use by another Catholic parish, St. Thomas the Apostle. The group has mounted an unprecedented direct appeal to the pope, requesting him to intervene directly.

“We want to be considered as a parish of the archdiocese,’’ said Jackie Lemmerhirt, a member of the St. Jeremiah’s appeal committee. “We are happy to share the space, but we want our status to be restored.’’

Peter Borre, head of the Council of Parishes — which represents Catholics opposed to closing churches — delivered the 50-page papal appeal, which is in English and Italian.

The document frames the issue in terms of a “policy context,’’ rather than as the plight of a single parish, said Bill Bannon, a spokesman for the council.

It cites Vatican law forbidding the use of parish assets to pay for archdiocesan debts and asks the pope to honor the Boston parishioners’ right to fight against the desanctification and probable sale of their churches.

But Donilon said last week’s appeal to Pope Benedict is not legitimate, as the Vatican’s highest court already ruled in the Holy Father’s name. “The appeals are over,’’ he said.

Bannon said it could be weeks or months before the council receives any sort of response to its pleas to the pope regarding the Boston-area parishes.

In the meantime, Wellesley town officials say they are very keen to purchase St. James and its 7.9 acres along Route 9.

Last week, a town subcommittee dedicated to studying possibilities for the St. James property suggested officials consider building an athletic complex that could include a soccer field with nighttime lighting, an ice rink, and a swimming pool.

The town has conducted a private appraisal, which it will not release publicly, Wellesley’s executive director, Hans Larsen, said last week.

But the town has made no offer — even a tentative one — to the Boston Archdiocese for the property, said Larsen. It is possible there will be several interested buyers for the land, which is zoned for residential use. Because it is church property, it generates no property taxes.

“We are getting prepared in the eventuality that the vigil ends and the church sees fit to put it up for sale,’’ he said. “We are hopeful, and we want to be ready.’’

Hurley said the St. James parishioners are not disturbed by the town’s increasingly frequent discussions of buying the church and its land.

“The town has been very supportive of us and very cordial,’’ she said. “We understand that is it not generating tax revenue for them, and if the property became available, that they would like to buy it.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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