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Scituate parishioners vow to fight to save church

Patty Litz (right) offered communion to Nancy M. Shilts during Mass Sunday at St. Frances X. Cabrini Parish in Scituate. A parishioner group voted unanimously to ask a canonical advocate to argue that the Boston Archdiocese exaggerated its financial woes to justify closing the church in 2004.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

SCITUATE — Parishioners who have been occupying the officially closed St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church for nearly 10 years voted Sunday to make a final push to reopen it, defying a request from the Boston Archdiocese to accept the decision of a Vatican court and leave the building.

The unanimous vote by about 50 members of the Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parishioner group gave the go-ahead to a canonical advocate to argue before a Vatican court that the archdiocese exaggerated its financial woes to justify closing the church.

“There is a profound inconsistency between what the lawyer for the archdiocese has put in writing. . . and the [archdiocese’s] audited financial results,” said the advocate, Peter Borré, who alleges that the archdiocese had a surplus in fiscal 2013 totaling tens of millions of dollars. “If it is in fact true that the archdiocese is on strong financial footing, then their rationale for closing this church collapses.”

In an e-mail, a spokesman for the archdiocese said it was committed to financial transparency and called Borré’s interpretation of archdiocesan financial records inaccurate and simplistic.


“While our overall financial situation has stabilized, I can assure the faithful we are not operating with a surplus and there are many major challenges remaining,” spokesman Terry Donilon wrote Sunday. “That said, we continue to seek a peaceful and prayerful resolution to the vigil.”

Donilon said the surplus cited by Borré consists mainly of funds that parishes raised for themselves. Although the total amount is reported as a single number in the archdiocese’s annual report, he said, it is in reality divided among many accounts held by individual parishes. Under canonical and civil law, those funds must remain with the parishes that raised them, and generally cannot be used by the archdiocese for other purposes. Donilon said the account that is used to maintain St. Frances and other closed churches lost money in the last fiscal year.


Donilon also said St. Frances was not closed solely for financial reasons, citing falling attendance, a shortage of priests, changing demographics, and the presence of other Catholic churches nearby. He has said previously that the archdiocese would not consider selling the building to parishioners and called on them to join other parishes. He has also accused the group of seeking confrontation, a charge they deny.

“Neither I nor anyone else in this parish wishes to be arrested or go to jail,” said Jon Rogers, who leads the Friends group. “We want a meeting to sit down face-to-face.”

Borré’s last-gasp canonical maneuver — technically, a “supplementary appeal to the truth of the matter” — follows the June decision by the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, to reject their challenge of the archdiocese’s deconsecration of the church building. That step allows the archdiocese to repurpose, lease, or sell the building. The archdiocese considers the ruling to be final and asked parishioners to respect it.

The Vatican court may decline to hear the latest appeal. In that case, Borré said, he would go to another court that could overrule that denial. In the meantime, the Friends group is also preparing a personal appeal to Pope Francis.

The tight-knit group of parishioners say the communal bonds they have formed since the vigil began in October 2004 are invaluable, and that they will remain together regardless of how their decade-long fight ends. There are even whispers of starting a breakaway, progressive “American Catholic Church.”

Margy O’Brien, of Scituate, voted with both arms to keep fighting to keep the St. Frances X. Cabrini parish open. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“When my husband died, I could come here and get solace,” said Barbara Nappa, 80, who has attended Mass at the church since the 1960s and helps lead lay services on Sundays. “It’s a good group of people here. They rallied around me, and it was very prayerful and calming at a difficult time.”


Rogers said that despite the longstanding animosity between the Friends and the archdiocese, his group still wants to rejoin the Catholic Church and work for reform from within.

“It’s not our intention to schism off. We made a promise that we would do everything within our human powers to reopen this church as a fully functional parish,” Rogers said. “We still desire a relationship with the archdiocese. It’s them who forced us out, not the other way around.”

But Nappa and other parishioners said that the 10 years they have spent outside the church has only deepened their distrust of the Rome-based Catholic power structure.

“This group here has brought me more into my faith than I’ve been for a long time,” she said. “We’ve been punched down so many times by the hierarchy. I trusted them all my life and now I distrust them. We can’t go back to the original way of doing things.”

That leaves open the question of whether reconciliation is possible, even if parishioners score an improbable victory over the archdiocese. Many of the diehard parishioners who remain in the Friends have been coming here for decades. It is clear their strongest ties are to each other, and that their identity as Catholics is rooted in this particular church, not in Rome.

“I grew up with this church. My children grew up with this church. We know everybody here,” said Mary Fernandes, 89, who has attended St. Frances since the 1960s. “We fight for this church because we don’t want it to disappear. It belongs to us, and we need it.”


Mary Fernandes prayed inside St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.