The lawn at her church needed cutting, so Maryellen Rogers recently hopped on her riding lawnmower and rode it over to St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, where she mowed an acre. The church needed a new furnace, so the Friends of St. Frances paid $20,000 to buy one. For nearly nine years, Rogers and others have maintained the church and property, staining the doors, replacing the kneelers, fixing the lighting, repairing the roof.
They support the Scituate Food Pantry, the Lord’s Outreach Ministries, and Boston Hope House for recovering addicts. They support a church and school in India. They have Sunday services, a monthly parish meeting, an annual fund-raiser every November, and a Christmas fair in December.
But if you ask the Archdiocese of Boston, St. Frances has been closed for nearly nine years now, since Oct. 26, 2004. That’s when the archdiocese changed the locks and declared the church closed as part of a reconfiguration process necessitated by dwindling attendance and collections and a shortage of priests.
The Friends of St. Frances have held a round-the-clock vigil in the pews since then, and say they intend to stay, even if it means they are arrested and carried out. They have filed a final appeal to remain an open church to the Collegium of the Apostolic Signatura, the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the Vatican. The next session of the court is likely to be in November, but St. Frances is not assured of being on that docket. The court only meets a couple of times a year.
The Friends are hoping for one of two actions: to be put into a collaboration with a sister church, sharing a priest; or to buy St. Frances back from the archdiocese. If the archdiocese won’t do either — and a spokesman says it won’t — the Friends may sue for discrimination. At their parish meeting Tuesday, they will discuss the next step.
“They say they don’t sell churches, which is kind of funny because they’ve been selling churches left and right,” says Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Friends. “They have sold to nonprofits, and we’re an incorporated nonprofit, but they say they won’t sell to us. We’re interested buyers and they’re discriminating against us.”
Maryellen and Jon Rogers, who have spearheaded the vigil since the start, were married 16 years ago at St. Frances. Maryellen grew up in the church, was baptized and confirmed there, and her father and brother were buried out of there.
“You can’t just steal churches from people,” she says. “It’s always just been a land grab. Our position is that you can’t sell off churches to pay for the sins of the past.” The archdiocese paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims of the priest sex abuse crisis.
The vigilers have long maintained that St. Frances, which had 3,000 registered parishioners, a large youth group, and a healthy bottom line, was targeted for its 30 acres of prime real estate near the ocean. The town of Scituate has appraised the property at $4.2 million. The archdiocese sold off the rectory in 2012. The vigilers say they just want the church and 5 acres.
But Terrence Donilon, the archdiocese spokesman, says they can’t buy the church because it is a closed parish relegated to profane, or non-religious, use. “At the end of the day, the parish is closed and it’s not going to reopen,” says Donilon. Though Cardinal Sean O’Malley respects the vigilers’ faith, he feels they are nonetheless missing out on parish life.
“You have to have priests who run the parish, who consecrate the Host and celebrate Mass,” says Donilon. “What is the statement they’re making to the rest of the archdiocese? There are many people still angry who lost their parish, but they made up their mind to be part of a parish community.”
St. Frances vigilers say that sympathetic priests consecrate the Host for Sunday services. And they believe they have, in effect, paid for their church twice: donating money and time when it was built in 1959-60, and again in the 1970s, when the archdiocese took out a mortgage on it. “So we paid for it twice, and we’re willing to pay a third time,” says Jon Rogers.
Harvard Law School’s mediation conflict resolution team has worked with 15 of the parishioners and reached out twice to the archdiocese, to no avail. Donilon says there is nothing to mediate because the church is closed.
“I get that they’re upset,” he says. “They obviously have great faith, and that energy and those talents could be used in so many parishes and programs in the archdiocese. We are willing to play by the rules. The question is, are they?”
The vigilers’ response: They have strictly followed canon law and deadlines. Maryellen Rogers adds: “Were they playing by the rules during the sexual abuse crisis? What rules were they playing by when horrific crimes were commited against innocent children?”
She wonders why the Vatican has ruled in favor of churches in Springfield, Cleveland, and Pennsylvania reopening, but none within the Archdiocese of Boston, where the sex abuse scandal first exploded in the headlines.
Jon Rogers, a financial planner, says the Friends’ message is the same: Reopen the church as a fully functionoing parish “or sell us the church and set us free.”
“If they’re going to sell it, why not sell it to us? We have a vested interest in it,” he says. Rogers figured out that over the nine years, he has spent a year of his life sleeping at St. Frances in vigil.
But the sale doesn’t appear likely. “We want and seek a peaceful and prayerful resolution to it,” says Donilon. “It is going to end. I don’t know when, I don’t know how. But the decision on the parish has been made.”