On Friday, it will be eight years – or 252,460,800 seconds – that parishioners at St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate have remained in vigil in the church that the Archdiocese of Boston has been trying to close since Oct. 26, 2004. The building has been occupied 24/7 since then by parishioners who say they built it, paid for it, and it belongs to them.
“Can you believe it’s eight years?” asks Maryellen Rogers, who along with her husband, Jon, manages the vigil. “It’s like serving two presidential terms.” Maryellen grew up in the church, her father and brother were buried out of it, and it is where she and Jon were married.
Though the archdiocese changed the locks of the church in 2004, a side door accidentally remained open. Outraged parishioners immediately assembled and began their vigil. Neither side – the church nor the archdiocese – could fathom that they would remain there for the next several years.
Other churches targeted for closure also maintained vigils, but St. Frances is the last 24-hour effort. The closures are part of a reconfiguration by the archdiocese: Before 2004, there were 357 parishes, today there are 288. Church officials said the process was necessary because of dwindling attendance and collections and a shortage of priests.
At St. Frances, a core group of 100 vigilers have occupied the church on a rotating basis, with another 300 “mid-level” volunteers who help out. “Our commitment is stronger than ever,” says Jon Rogers, a financial planner. “We love the fact that our parish has shown so much courage.”
Over the years, the parishioners have filed canon law appeals to Rome as well as a civil lawsuit asking that their church be reopened – to no avail. Last spring, the Vatican upheld the archdiocese’s decision in 2011 to deconsecrate St. Frances. Under church law, deconsecration changes a place of worship into a secular building, which is a mandatory step before a church can be sold.
The vigilers say their church was targeted for closing because it sits on about 30 acres of valuable real estate, just blocks from the ocean, in an affluent neighborhood. From the start, they say, they have offered the archdiocese a compromise: Sell 25 acres, but spare the church, parish center, and parking lot.
But the archdiocese says it’s not about the money. “It’s about providing the necessary resources to our parishes and putting in place a structure that can last for decades to come,” says Terry Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, worship and social activities continue apace at St. Frances. They pray the rosary on Tuesday evenings, have Family Night on Fridays, and hold a Sunday lay-led service with the Communion host consecrated by a sympathetic priest. Last Easter, 880 people showed up.
Friends of St. Frances, as they call themselves, have their own website and weekly newsletter. There’s wifi for those who sit and sleep in the building.
In fact, it’s hard to believe the church is “closed.” The parish continues its ministries to the Scituate Food Pantry, Hope House for recovering addicts, and Lord’s Outreach Ministries. Parishioners host an annual Yard, Plant and Bake Sale in May, an Evening Under the Stars fund-raiser in August, and a Christmas Bazaar and Bake Sale in December. Each November there’s a Mother Cabrini Spaghetti Supper. Each spring and fall there’s a major cleaning party for the church.
Proceeds from the events go to church maintenance. During the vigil, they’ve spent $20,000 on the furnace, repaired the roof, lighting, walkways, kneelers, and woodwork. They’ve put in new landscaping and a microphone system and shampooed the rugs. Seven vigil quilts, made by parishioner Bobbie Sullivan, hang in the church.
“We’re more tight-knit than we’ve ever been,” says Jon Rogers.
But things are reaching a critical stage, as parishioners anxiously await a decision from the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican — the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the Catholic Church. Friends of St. Frances had appealed the ruling of a lower Vatican court that refused to reverse the deconsecration of the church.
That court had granted favorable decisions to all 12 vigiling parishioner groups in Cleveland, but denied all six Boston groups. “Cleveland went 12 and 0, and we went 0 and six,” says Jon Rogers. “We were all denied. It’s some kind of bag job that [Archbishop Sean] O’Malley put together. These people are just beyond belief.”
Peter Borre, who, as chairman of the Council of Churches, has advised churches in vigil, notes that the archdiocese has started a “re-evangelizing” program to attract lapsed Catholics back to the pews. “At St. Frances, you have a community of Catholics who want to continue to worship in their church. What the heck is more Catholic than that?”
According to the archdiocese, Mass attendance is at 17 percent, down from about 70 percent in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the number of priests has been cut in half, to 700 today.
The vigilers plan to mark the eight-year milestone at their Sunday service on Oct. 28, and say they have no intention of giving up, even if they get a negative response from the Vatican.
“The bottom line is, if the archdiocese says leave, we’re not going to,” says Jon Rogers. “They’re going to have to take us out of there, but that’s not our choice.”
But Donilon, of the archdiocese, disagrees. “I would say it is their choice,” he says. “We get it; we understand why they’re upset. But there are 288 open parishes that would welcome them with open arms.”
When a decision comes from the Apostolic Signatura, O’Malley will make a decision on what to do, says Donilon. “He’s an exceptionally patient man, and he’s not looking to drag people out of churches. But I would never say never. At some point, this has to end. I don’t know how, but it can’t go on forever.”
If the Vatican upholds the deconsecration, St. Frances will probably be put up for sale. “That parish is not going to reopen. I expect we will market it and sell it,” says Donilon.
Says Maryellen Rogers: “If we are denied, our community will continue to reach out to the archdiocese for some sort of resolve. We are not going anywhere.”