Taking on the church he loves

Closed Catholic parishes find a fighter in Charlestown’s Peter Borré

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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Peter Borré, an old Navy man, rises at 5:30 a.m. By 6, he is on the phone to Rome from his Charlestown home, to collect updates from his canon lawyers and court sources at the Vatican.

He is a lifelong Catholic locked in bitter battle with the church he reveres.

A man possessed of courtly bearing, lofty academic pedigree, and salty tongue, Borré has emerged as the top strategist for aggrieved US Catholics determined to keep open churches that prelates have declared should close. At the moment, he is working with 23 flocks in nine dioceses - including six groups in the Boston area - through the Council of Parishes, a coalition he formed.

He has accused top clergy of misleading the faithful on their rights, of bungling the closings, of failing to evangelize and expand the church.

Parishioners, he says, develop intense relationships with their churches, where they baptize their children and bury their elders, no matter the building’s physical appeal or the parish’s dwindling membership.

“And that,’’ the 72-year-old energy consultant said sternly, “is what these old men in long robes have failed to understand.’’

To the church, he is an ego-driven agitator who has personalized the conflict over painful church closings, relentlessly criticizing top clergy, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop.

“For the past many years, Peter Borré has exhibited a rather strange, almost narcissistic, approach to fighting and harming the church,’’ said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese.

Borré’s own faith formed in the crucible of post-World War II Rome, where he spent seven years in a fire-and-brimstone Jesuit school and attended daily Mass while his father worked in Italy. The rules of the church were thoroughly embossed in him; he denies himself communion because his first marriage ended in divorce.

In 2004, after the Boston Archdiocese announced a sweeping plan to merge parishes and close churches, Borré’s activism began with a petition drive against the planned shutdown of his home parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Charlestown.

Over the widening, seven-year fight that followed, Borré has pioneered strategies to combat church closings, standing at the forefront of an evolving relationship between the faithful and their church leaders, said Nick Cafardi, a canon lawyer and law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

“The best effect Borré has had is making people aware of their rights in the church and how to protect those rights,’’ Cafardi said.

Borré’s sharp words and hard-nosed tactics, including sit-in vigils (a politic way of describing trespassing inside closed churches), have galvanized parishioners who organized to rescue beloved neighborhood churches.

“We never could have gotten this far without Peter,’’ said Noreen Foti, a member of a parishioner group in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that has appealed to the Vatican to save its church. She calls Borré a personal mentor.

But his militant methods have also fractured relationships between parishioners and church leaders unaccustomed to such fierce pushback and have alienated those uncomfortable with provoking a confrontation with the men of the cloth who lead their churches.

“He was all about fighting, fighting, fighting and getting in people’s faces,’’ said Kelly Tracy, part of a parishioner group in Springfield that decided against retaining Borré to help save their church, which was targeted for closure. “We wanted to have a relationship with the diocese when it ended - however it ended.’’

The group kept the church open through negotiations with their bishop, she said.

“If you wanted to follow Peter Borré, you’re better off buying the property and running your own church,’’ she said. “How are you ever going to repair that relationship?’’

In person, Borré, a product of such exclusive schools as Phillips Academy and Harvard, comes off as smart and well studied. He enjoys displaying his fluency in Italian, one of several languages he speaks. In private, he swears like a sailor; Borré served two years of active duty and several temporary assignments with the US Navy.

He spent his career in the energy field, often working overseas, for companies such as Mobil and for the US Department of Energy. He continues to work as a private consultant and suggested that he personally contributes at least $10,000 a year toward his “half-time job’’ fighting church closures.

He is particularly critical of the way the Boston Archdiocese handles its money: “These guys couldn’t manage the night shift of a Store 24,’’ Borré said recently.

The archdiocese, in return, slams Borré for obsessing over church finances while declining to account publicly for tens of thousands of dollars raised by church groups to pay for canon lawyers and Borré’s frequent trips to Rome.

“It is concerning that there appears to be no formal accounting of how [the Council of Parishes] raise their funds, nor is there any detail of expenditures,’’ Donilon said.

Borré, in response, said he spends about $35,000 a year fighting closures, an expensive proposition, with trips roughly every other month to Rome so that he can personally plead his case to Vatican officials he has come to know. He also strategizes in Italian and reviews documents in Latin with his lawyer, Carlo Gullo, an experienced practitioner of canon law.

“In a good year, I can raise maybe $20,000 to $25,000’’ from clients, Borré said. “The other part comes out of my pocket,’’ he said. “Glad to do it.’’

He said he reports contributions for tax purposes and insists he does not charge for his time. “It’s not that I have rivers of Mafia money feeding me. I bring some skills to the party: about four or five languages, the ability to go to Rome on the cheap, and a certain amount of chutzpah.’’

What the archdiocese does not understand, Borré said, is that he is not driving the fight against church closing - parishioners are. “I don’t control these people,’’ he said. “I counsel them.’’

After a string of court losses, Borré said he is cheered by recent Vatican decisions to prevent the sales of some shuttered churches in New York, Pennsylvania, and Western Massachusetts, based on appeals brought by parishioners.

The Vatican has widely upheld the authority of bishops to close parishes but is beginning to draw the line at the deconsecration of church buildings so they can be sold off, said Cafardi, the canon lawyer.

“Rome started thinking: ‘Why are we making decisions that are irreversible? What if people move back?’ ’’ he said. “Rome is used to thinking in terms of decades or centuries.’’

Last month, O’Malley deconsecrated six closed churches in the archdiocese. He plans to sell them for redevelopment.

Parish groups will appeal to Rome, Borré pledged. It may be the final chapter in the seven-year battle.

“We’re coming to some resolution after open-ended warfare, if you want to call it that,’’ Borré said. He predicted the Vatican high court would side with some parish groups, but not all.

“I don’t think it’s a Hollywood ending,’’ he said. “In every war, there are casualties.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at