On each wall at the front of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church, eye-catching and complex quilts hang near pews, pedestals, and stained glass windows.
Each quilt tells the story of the Boston Archdiocese’s closing of churches five years ago, and the 24-hour vigils held by the people who are still fighting to keep their houses of worship open.
Of particular interest is the journey of parishioners and their supporters at St. Frances, who on Sunday will mark the 5-year anniversary of their occupying the church to prevent its closing and sale.
During this Sunday’s regular service, which is performed by the laity, parishioners will get their first look at another quilt—one with blazing reds and oranges and swirls of white doves that illustrate the passion and emotions behind the resistance.
“I call it the ‘Energy’ quilt,” said Bobbie Sullivan, (above) a 57-year-old quilt artist from Scituate who created the quilts.
On Sunday, the new quilt—whose full title is “Boundless Energy Driven by Faith,” will hold a place under a more-than-lifesize image of Jesus Christ on a cross that dominates the altar. It will join her other quilts as a symbol of faith and determination during the last five years and a beacon of the perseverance and unity that will be needed to continue the vigil.
“For a lot of people, red means stop, or expresses anger,” Sullivan said. “For me, red is a bold color that represents passion and energy and momentum. Instead of stop—it’s go.''
And for the dozens of people who have stayed in the church for a few hours a day, or overnight in sleeping bags in the sacristy, the new quilt is a battle flag in the fight to keep the church open.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Ann Ryan, a Scituate resident who manned the desk inside the church’s entrance last week. “We can go another 5 years,” she said as she signed up for more hours the following week.
St. Frances was one of the churches the archdiocese planned to close under a 2004 reconfiguration plan that followed the clergy sex abuse scandals. More than 80 churches were scheduled to close and be sold to help offset a financial crisis at the archdiocese.
Most churches held closing services, and their parishioners went to other parishes. At St. Frances, closing services were held and the locks were changed on the doors. But an open fire door allowed a parishioner to slip in, and the vigil began on Oct. 26, 2004.
Sullivan said vigils at area churches helped other churches remain open, such as St. Albert’s in Weymouth or the Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Plymouth, which received a reprieve when the archdiocese took another look at its list of closings.
“We are all in solidarity. We all want the same thing—we want to keep our church open,” Sullivan said.
St. Frances is one of about 20 churches across the country in vigil and one of five in the state. Archdiocese officials point to the number as evidence that a majority of Boston’s more than 2 million Catholics support—happily or otherwise—changes the church has made to heal after the abuse scandals.
“Our hope is that all of the vigils will end in a prayerful manner,” said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “We clearly respect them and where they are coming from, but what they are advocating is not likely to happen.''
Maryellen Rogers and her husband, Jon, have led St. Frances parishioners during the vigil.
They have received help from the Council of Parishes, a lay group formed to help churches in vigil.
Because the archdiocese has denied priests to most vigil churches, the Council of Parishes has helped train parishioners, including women, to hold Sunday services. The communion host, a sacrament that requires a priest's blessing, is done before Sunday services by a priest who supports their cause, said Rogers.
Through the Council of Parishes, St. Frances has appealed the church’s closing to the Vatican, but most believe that route will eventually fail.
Donilon said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, has allowed the vigils to continue until the Vatican makes a decision on the appeals. The archdiocese, Donilon said, pays about $880,000 a year for heat, electricity, and maintenance costs for the five vigil churches and nine others that have been closed but not sold.
“Cardinal Sean is a peaceful man, a holy man who has shown a lot of patience,” Donilon said. “At some point these vigils have to end. They can not go on forever.”
Rogers and other St. Frances vigil leaders said they have tried to work out a solution, but a compromise seems unlikely.
She said the latest plan is to raise money and buy the church from the archdiocese. “We bought it once, we can buy it again,” Rogers said.
She said donations and fund-raising by parishioners built the church in 1960, and while between 20 and 40 parishioners attend Sunday services now that the church has closed, there are hundreds in the community who would help with such an endeavor.
Rogers said parishioners could buy the church building and keep a swath of the 30.3-acre parcel, and the archdiocese could sell the rest.
The church would still be Catholic, she said, but it would be owned, operated and paid by parishioners. “If they want to sell it, sell it to us,” Rogers said.
It’s a plan Sister Marian Batho, a liaison between St. Frances vigilers and Cardinal O’Malley, said would not be accepted.
“It isn’t a business proposal. It’s not how the process works,” Batho said. “It’s a community of faith in conjunction with the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean. It’s a community greater than individual parishes and churches."