Ex-parishioners still hope to reverse church closings

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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When the news came this week that Pope Benedict XVI had rejected the last-ditch appeal of a group of former parishioners to reopen nine churches closed in 2003 and 2004, it seemed as if the protesters’ long struggle was finally over.

But yesterday the former parishioners, some of whom are still occupying their churches, said they are not quitting yet. Groups from seven Boston-area churches have filed appeals with the Vatican to prevent Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley from officially declaring their churches available for nonreligious use, a procedure that under church law is supposed to precede the sale of churches to non-Catholic entities.

The Vatican’s highest court rejected the former parishioners’ appeal of the closings in May, and the pope, via a letter by a top aide, upheld that decision. But Peter Borre — a spokesman for the Council of Parishes, which represents the former parishioners — said the Vatican could still stop the buildings from being used for non-Catholic purposes.

“Then we would have another kind of standoff, which is pretty crazy: a bishop who can shut down a parish but not dispose of the church,’’ Borre said. Such a “lose-lose outcome,’’ he said, might induce O’Malley to relent and reopen the parishes in some fashion.

Terrence C. Donilon, an archdiocesan spokesman, said the former parishioners’ appeal was premature because O’Malley had not yet issued decrees designating the parishes as available for nonreligious use.

“He has got nothing to appeal,’’ Donilon said of Borre. “If he wants to keep writing to the Vatican, let him, but at the end of the day these parishes are closed, and they’re going to remain closed, and I think it is our focus and mandate from the cardinal to continue to work to heal and rebuild the Archdiocese of Boston.’’

The churches involved in the latest appeal are Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere, Star of the Sea in Quincy, St. Michael in Lynn, St. Jeanne d’Arc in Lowell, St. James the Great in Wellesley, St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, and St. Jeremiah in Framingham, Borre said. Two other Boston-area churches that had appealed to the pope are not participating in the latest challenge.

Borre said he was told privately Monday that the Vatican has just issued “split decisions’’ in the case of two US parishioner groups, affirming the closing of the parishes but directing that the churches remain open for Catholic worship.

Borre said he had not yet read those decisions, nor did he know whether there were special circumstances in those cases.

This latest glimmer of hope heartened Jon Rogers, a leader and participant in the vigil at St. Frances, which has been occupied around the clock since its closing in October 2004.

He said some 1,000 people attended lay-led services at the church over Christmas weekend. The holdouts still hope O’Malley will change his mind.

If not, he said, they hope the cardinal will at least consider selling the church to parishioners, something the archdiocese has so far refused to do.

“After seven years, ‘move on’ is not a solution for us,’’ Rogers said yesterday. “What we ask . . . is that they open a dialogue with us in a sincere and meaningful way.’’

Two of the other churches in the latest appeal. St. Jeremiah and St. James, are among the five closed churches that remain in vigil.

Donilon would not say whether the archdiocese would remove the protesters anytime soon.

“I think Peter Borre would love it if we dragged people out of the churches,’’ Donilon said. “We’re not looking to take that kind of drastic action.’’

“Our hope is that, through continued mutual respect and dialogue, they will respect the decisions that have been affirmed by the Vatican.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at