The ocean was cresting the sea wall in Scituate, and there was a rumble that sounded like thunder. Not far away, Jon Rogers was sitting in a big easy chair in the vestibule of a Catholic church called St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
“Barbara Nappa and Caroline Crooker usually do Monday nights,” he was saying, “but they couldn’t do tonight.”
Nappa’s house and Crooker’s house are down by the sea, and they had to ride out the storm there. Besides, Crooker usually rides her bike to the church, and that wasn’t a viable option as Sandy’s wet and windy fingertips slapped the South Shore.
The good people of Scituate, in all their perpetual vulnerability, know how to survive storms. They do it with a mix of hardy defiance and deep spirituality, and nowhere is that attitude more resplendent than in the sanctuary that is St. Frances.
On Sunday, the people who refuse to give up St. Frances celebrated the eighth year of their vigil — their occupation — of their church.
In 2004, as part of its consolidation process, the Archdiocese of Boston changed the locks on the church, intending to sell it off. But something approaching divine intervention left a side door open. Some parishoners got inside and they haven’t left since, maintaining a vigil that reached 2,925 days as Sandy howled outside.
For each and every one of those days, those who take turns maintaining the 24-hour vigil assumed there was a possibility that the archdiocese would dispatch a commando team of lock-changers to take back the church. And if you think the mess that Sandy burped up would make the retaking of the church unthinkable, the noble parishoners of St. Frances thought just the opposite.
“The archdiocese went into Sacred Heart in Natick on Christmas Eve and took it back,” Jon Rogers was saying. “The day you think they won’t do it is the day that they will do it.”
The door opened to the wind and the rain and Rogers’ wife, Maryellen, stepped inside. She had come from her mother’s house down by the ocean.
“It doesn’t look good,” she said.
Maryellen Rogers grew up in Scituate and so she measures her life in storms: the Blizzard of ’78, the No Name storm of ’91, and now Sandy. And as Sandy raged, Maryellen Rogers tried to keep her mom and her church safe at the same time.
“We put an emergency list up on Sunday, to get us through the storm,” she said. “We got nine volunteers. People are great.”
Some of those volunteers live by the ocean, but they will take their turn at St. Frances. Saving your house is one thing. Saving your house of worship is another thing altogether.
Nancy Shilts showed up for the afternoon shift, all spit and vinegar. She is 79 years old and she could give Vince Wilfork a battle. Jon Rogers wasn’t half-kidding when he suggested somebody might show up to Super Glue the door locks. Shilts shrugged.
“I raised six kids,” she said. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
Jon and Maryellen Rogers had left and Shilts was alone in the vestibule, keeping an eye on the reality show that was Sandy, when a stranger appeared at the door. There was an awkward moment — was he a lock changer? — and then she realized he was there to pick up some books the parish had gathered for a charity. They chatted a while and then Nancy Shilts slipped him five bucks, a tip for coming out into the storm.
The guy, a native of Haiti, stared at the bill in his palm and said, “No one’s ever done that before.”
Nancy Shilts settled back into the big easy chair by the TV and was at peace with herself because she has a plan if somebody shows up on her shift to take back St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
“I’ll take my clothes off,” she said. “They’ll run away.”