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Vatican’s ruling offers hope to vigil

St. James group cites Springfield decisions

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Wrapped in jackets and scarves, 16 St. James the Great parishioners gathered recently on a chilly Sunday, the 2,574th day of their vigil at the long-shuttered Wellesley church, to celebrate Mass.

They took turns doing readings, sang hymns accompanied by a boom box, and received Communion with wafers consecrated by priests they will not name for fear of getting them in trouble with the Archdiocese of Boston, which closed St. James seven years ago and shut off the heat and water last month, citing safety concerns with the boiler.

As temperatures drop and the archdiocese remains resolute that their occupation has to end soon, St. James parishioners have found hope in the Vatican’s recent decision to reverse the deconsecration of three Springfield churches.

Deconsecration turns a church from a house of worship into a secular building. The St. James group has an appeal pending in Rome that is similar to the Springfield appeals, asking for the reversal of the Wellesley church’s deconsecration this summer.

“We have a feeling that our dedication is being recognized,’’ said Paul Hughes, a lawyer who helped start the St. James vigil and who wrote some of the early appeals. “I believe Rome is saying to the American bishops, ‘Don’t just close a church when you have problems.’ ’’

The Springfield decisions don’t mean that those churches will be reopened, said Monsignor John Bonzagni, director of pastoral planning for the Springfield Diocese.

“The decision doesn’t say we have to utilize the churches,’’ he said. “We just can’t deconsecrate them.’’

Terrence Donilon, the spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, said that even if the deconsecration of St. James were to be reversed, the church wouldn’t have to reopen.

“We’re into a different phase here,’’ he said. “The Vatican has ruled and affirmed the closings.’’

But Peter Borré, chairman of the Council of Parishes, a group formed to support parishes subject to closure, who assisted Springfield and is assisting St. James with their appeals, said the Springfield decision represents a major shift in how Rome deals with appeals from closed parishes.

“If those three Springfield decisions had gone against the parishioners, I would be pretty glum,’’ he said. “That would be an indication of bad news coming. The fact that all three resulted in a good outcome tells me that there is a new policy in Rome which is more friendly to parishioners who are trying to save their churches.’’

The St. James appeal pending in Rome is the second that St. James parishioners have filed with the Vatican, said Borré. Each appeal, he said, grinds on for two or three years. Though the first appeal against the parish’s closing was denied, the Springfield decision indicates a change in Vatican policy.

“We are encouraged by the Springfield outcome,’’ he said.

Borré said he expects an answer from Rome on the pending St. James appeal sometime after the new year. There are six similar appeals in Rome from six groups in the Archdiocese of Boston, including St. James, he said.

Bonzagni agreed that the Springfield decisions represent a change in Vatican thinking, but said it did not mean that dioceses can no longer consolidate or merge parishes.

“What happened here has made it difficult for a diocese to close a parish, but not impossible,’’ he said. “It complicates things, but it doesn’t impede them.’’

Donilon said that the decision to close St. James, while painful, was necessary.

“The fact of the matter is we saw a decline in the number of clergy,’’ he said. “We saw a decline in Mass attendance. We have outdated facilities, which are in need of capital repair. We had a model that was not working anymore. And so, essentially, the cardinal had to make a decision: ‘Can I continue to operate this many parishes?’

“No one enjoyed it,’’ Donilon said. “The cardinal certainly did not enjoy it. It was painful. It had a tremendous impact on the church. But it was necessary.’’

The archdiocese has spent more than $370,000 on building maintenance at St. James since it closed the parish, he said.

While they wait for Rome to rule, St. James parishioners have filled their church with space heaters and gallon jugs of water. They’ve moved their lay-led Mass from the church proper to the sacristy, a small, easy-to-heat room where a priest would prepare for a Mass. A portable toilet sits in the parking lot.

“Every Christmas, we think this is the last. But it’s never been,’’ said Carol MacPhee, who has been a parishioner at St. James for 45 years.

“When you read the Scripture, seven is the sign of perfection,’’ she said. “I always believed, if we just can make it to seven years.’’

Parishioners are planning a Giving Tree for this Christmas season, decorated with ornaments bearing the names of children in a nearby shelter, along with their ages and the gifts they’d like to receive. And they’re sending out postcards inviting supporters to a Christmas service. A core group of about 50 people attend the Sunday services regularly, they said. Their mailing list has about 100 names on it.

“It’s community,’’ said Susan Hunt, who has been a parishioner at St. James for more than 30 years. “That, to me, is the missing piece that the archdiocese doesn’t understand.’’

In 2004, before St. James was closed, there were 357 parishes operating in the archdiocese, said Donilon. Now, there are 290.

“They’re cannibalizing themselves,’’ said Borré. “The most important part of the Catholic Church is the network of churches. In attempting to save this archdiocese, they are destroying it.’’

Donilon maintains, however, that “the vast majority of people affected by the parish closings have moved on to welcoming parishes.’’

But St. James parishioners say that the Wellesley church is their home, and they’ll stay for as long as it takes.

“My heart is 45 years in this parish,’’ said MacPhee. “We live in hope.’’

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