(Tom Herde/Globe Staff/File 2004
Maryellen and Jon Rogers think they’ve seen the future of the Catholic Church: lay-led parishes. That is, parishes run by parishioners - except for the sacraments, which would still be led by a priest, of course.
You might ask what makes the couple experts on the subject. It’s because for five years, their church - St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate - has been lay-led. It’s not by choice: St. Frances was padlocked by the Archdiocese of Boston five years ago. But for a back door left unlocked by chance, it would have been shut down.
Parishioners have occupied the picturesque church 24/7 ever since. At their five-year anniversary last Monday, that totaled 1,826 days.
All this time, St. Frances has been in a standoff with the archdiocese. The parishioners won’t leave their beloved church that they say they built in 1961, raising money and, in some cases, helping raise the roof. The archdiocese has said that its reconfiguration plan calls for the church to be shuttered, like the dozens of others it has closed due to dwindling attendance, funds, and priests. The pastoral needs of the flock can be met at St. Mary’s in Scituate, the archdiocese believes.
But St. Frances parishioners - like those at four other Boston-area churches also in vigil - want to stay at their home parish. They have proposed compromises, including selling off 25 acres while sparing the church, parish center, and parking lot. They’ve offered to buy the buildings from the archdiocese.
“There is an open invitation to sit down with the decision-makers of the archdiocese any place, any time, to discuss anything except the closure of our church,’’ says Jon Rogers, who along with his wife has led the vigil. “This includes us buying back our church, in essence paying for it twice. The people of this community, not the archdiocese, bought, paid for, and actually helped construct this church.’’
But the archdiocese argues that the church belongs to it, and the Vatican has agreed. Cardinal Sean O’Malley is awaiting word from Rome on an appeal filed by parishioners before taking action. The last thing he wants is to be pulling little old ladies out of the pews.
St. Frances vigilers say they understand the acute shortage of priests and funds, pointing to one priest who is covering three churches in Dorchester. “They need help, and we want to help,’’ says Maryellen Rogers. How? By letting the laity run the church: its buildings, finances, day-to-day operations, religious education, social action programs, even some religious services.
“The priest can show up for the sacraments, for weddings, baptisms, and funerals,’’ says Jon. “And let us focus on the jobs we do best.’’ For Communion at St. Frances, sympathetic priests have provided consecrated hosts.
The truth is, Catholic churches throughout the country are in financial free-fall, reeling from large settlements to victims of priest sexual abuse. At the same time - and partly for the same reason - church attendance and collections have dropped. Ditto for the number of priests, a graying population with fewer young men seeking the vocation.
The idea of lay-led parishes remains controversial, though under canon law it is allowed as a temporary measure in certain cases. “Why not make St. Frances this type of church and a prototype for the future?’’ asks Maryellen. “We have proven ourselves over the past five years.’’
Indeed, the church services include bulletins, missals, music, lay readers who read Scripture, a children’s story, a reflection, an offertory, prayers, and Communion. Religious education classes are held twice a week. The rosary is recited every Tuesday. Last Sunday was a celebration of the vigil. This month, a big art show and sale is planned. In December, there’s the annual Christmas bazaar and bake sale featuring crafts and cookies made by parishioners. There will be the usual Giving Tree, which helps needy families.
The church serves as a dropoff for the local food pantry and contributes to the Lord’s Outreach Ministries, which helps the homeless in Tennessee. Parishioners have raised money for tsunami and Katrina victims, for school children in Uganda, for Chernobyl victims, and for hospice patients. They make blankets for local women’s shelters.
The only thing lacking - and it is a big thing - is a priest.
Sister Marian Batho, who serves as a liaison between the archdiocese and the five churches in vigil (the others are St. Therese in Everett, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston, St. Jeremiah in Framingham, and St. James the Great in Wellesley), says lay-led parishes elsewhere in the country are allowed only for geographic and demographic reasons, such as insufficient numbers of priests to cover large areas.
“Cardinal Sean has been very clear . . . that for the foreseeable future in the Archdiocese of Boston, all parishes will have priests as pastors,’’ she says.
The past year has been a good one for the St. Frances vigilers. They made the “Today’’ show and the front page of The New York Times. They did the ABC, NBC, and CBS nightly news shows. But the sweetest victory, to them, is the recent court ruling over property taxes.
The town of Scituate began taxing the archdiocese for the property in 2006, arguing that the valuable property - 30 acres near the Atlantic Ocean - no longer qualifies for the tax exemption since the archdiocese closed it. The archdiocese argues that it still qualifies for the exemption. A judge ruled that O’Malley must provide evidence that the archdiocese is using or plans to use the property for religious purposes.
“They’re really trying to have it both ways,’’ says Jon Rogers. “They won’t give us Mass, but they won’t pay taxes because they say it’s a place of worship.’’
St. Frances vigilers say they are happy running things, but they need the services of a priest for Mass. “We do need spiritual nourishing and we do need help from the archdiocese,’’ says Maryellen Rogers. “But we can help them, too. We think a lay-led parish is a win-win solution.’’
Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.