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LAST RITES

Faithful following

After six months, parishioners are still fighting for St. Albert's

WEYMOUTH -- Last August they took to the pews wearing T-shirts and sandals, thankful for the church's air conditioning system. Sunday night they wore parkas and boots, thankful for the church's heating system.

It has been six months since parishioners at St. Albert the Great took over their church to protest its closing by the Archdiocese of Boston. Since Aug. 29, following the last Mass, the church has been occupied around the clock by parishioners ranging from toddlers to senior citizens. Dogs have even snoozed in the pews.

To mark the milestone, parishioners held an ''evening of reflection" in the sanctuary, followed by a champagne reception in the parish hall. Just as at the August Mass, tears -- and Kleenex -- flowed. Mary Akoury, co-chairwoman of the pastoral council, which has directed the vigil, addressed the packed church with a cracking voice. ''We rallied together, supporting each other with our faith, our love of our parish, and the strong conviction that an injustice had been done to our vibrant, thriving parish community," she said, to loud applause.

Akoury acknowledged that when the vigil began no one knew what to expect. ''At that point in time, none of us realized the magnitude of what we were about to do. We had challenged the authority of the church."

Several parishioners noted that a parish led by the laity had become the norm at St. Albert's, with parishioners holding twice-daily prayer services, paying the bills, maintaining the property, organizing charity drives, and running social events, classes, and a health-care ministry. ''We've been doing this for so long, it has become normal," said Don Gustafson, an accountant and pastoral council member who pays the parish bills. ''I can guarantee you we have more money in our account than many 'open' parishes in Weymouth." In the utility account alone, the parish has $25,000. There is also a large legal fund; parishioners are suing the archdiocese and have filed a canon appeal to Rome.

In dire financial straits following the sexual-abuse crisis, the archdiocese has closed scores of parishes under its controversial reconfiguration plan. Officials have cited declining attendance and collections, along with deteriorating buildings and a shortage of priests as the reasons. Seven ''suppressed" churches are now being occupied by parishioners. St. Albert's was the first.

Sunday night, people who were strangers six months ago exchanged hugs and clinked plastic cups of champagne. In remarks from the altar, Harold Pugh addressed the phenomenon. ''Welcome to St. Albert the Great, where everybody knows your name," he began, to chuckles from the pews. ''Six months ago, I knew a relatively small number of people here at St. Albert's. But during these past six months I have met some wonderful people who I now consider my friends." He concluded, to applause: ''I'm looking forward to Easter and for a peaceful resolution to correct the injustice that has been done here. Our church deserves to be officially reopened, and Father Coyne needs to return as our pastor."

The Rev. Ron Coyne is the popular priest who guided the church through the sexual-abuse scandal and established several youth sports teams and adult education classes in the parish. Since the church closed, he has been at his family home in West Roxbury. He has not been reassigned by the archdiocese, which placed him on the emergency response team, meaning he would fill in for priests who are ill or on vacation.

Coyne has stopped by the church only once since he left, but the reading of a letter from him nonetheless elicited a standing ovation Sunday night. Lou Rizzo, cochairman of the pastoral council, read the letter aloud. ''Dear Friends, what a great discovery it is when a person realizes that their spirit is as important as their body and their mind," the letter began. ''I wish every parish could create among its parishioners the excitement, creativity and spontaneity that makes you the dynamic community of faith you are today." He added that the vigil is not just about St. Albert the Great but ''about a much larger picture."

''This is the reason I always chose to look at life as a giraffe. They have a view that enables them to see above and beyond. They have their feet firmly on the ground and their heads in the clouds. They stand tall." He signed off with his trademark: ''You're the best," and the parishioners stood and applauded, some wiping tears from their eyes.

Parishioners were asked to speak at the ''evening of reflection." Elizabeth Griffin, who along with her two young daughters has spent every Friday night since Aug. 29 in the church, described what it has meant to her family. ''This experience has instilled values in my children. . . . It is not only shaping their views on spirituality, but it is also molding who they are becoming."

Mary Santry, 74, spoke of the archdiocese's ''cold steel ax coming down on us." She said she remains angry at the archdiocese but has redirected that anger in ''helping to change our church, a church that seems set on committing institutional suicide."

The church's pastoral council has asked the archdiocese and its External Review Committee to reopen the church and reinstate Coyne as pastor. Peter Meade and Sister Janet Eisner, who chair the committee, met with St. Albert's representatives in January. The committee has been reviewing the cases of churches targeted to close and making recommendations to Archbishop Sean O'Malley. They have not indicated how they will vote on St. Albert's, but parishioners are hopeful. Some believe their church will reopen, but without Coyne. Many are insistent that Coyne be part of any deal.

Meade said yesterday he hopes to have an answer for St. Albert's by Easter but declined to give details. Asked whether the archdiocese would comment yesterday, its public-relations firm, the Rasky/Baerlein Group, issued a statement saying the archdiocese ''continues to recognize the difficulty experienced by all parties involved with the vigil at St. Albert's" and that O'Malley ''continues to pray and hope for a peaceful resolution of their vigil."

So the vigil continues. Sign-up sheets at the back of the church are filled in, a Lenten prayer group is meeting, Family Movie Night continues every Friday, and a women's retreat is set for April. Classes such as Bible study, knitting, painting, and seasonal crafts are being held, and an Irish step dance group will perform at a St. Patrick's Day lunch.

Surveying the crowd in the parish hall Sunday night, Don Gustafson remarked: ''This is the future of the Catholic Church -- more laity involvement. And we are a model for that."

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