SCITUATE — Hundreds of solemn parishioners crowded St. Frances X. Cabrini church for a final service Sunday morning — but by nightfall, the church was strangely quiet, the dismantling begun.
By midnight Monday, St. Frances will be empty for the first time in 4,235 consecutive days, no vigilers sleeping on shabby cots in tight quarters, some using boiling water from an electric teapot to wash in the morning. Gone are the legal advisers consulting with parishioners on ways to block the Boston Archdiocese from forcing them out of the church they have defiantly occupied since 2004.
In the end, legal appeals ran out. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the parishioners’ case against the archdiocese on May 16, the nearly 12-year, round-the-clock vigil to save St. Frances from being closed down was over, as was the congregation’s relationship with the archdiocese.
At Sunday’s service, longtime churchgoers officially said a reluctant goodbye to their beloved spiritual home, with bitter words for the Catholic hierarchy. Legally, the congregation has been ordered by a court to vacate the church by 11:59 p.m. Monday.
“In war, there are casualties, and unfortunately our church will be one,” said Jon Rogers who, along with his wife, Maryellen, have spoken for the vigilers. The church gave Rogers a whooping ovation for his reflections on the group’s “revolution of faith.”
“This is not a death, but the birth of a new church and a new way of thinking,” he said. “We are the bright light our world needs, and I pray that we burn forever.”
Vigilers announced plans to form a new “Catholic community” church in Scituate. It would operate outside the Boston Archdiocese and be partly led by the Rev. Terry McDonough, a married Massachusetts priest who has long been at odds with Catholic leadership.
McDonough led Sunday’s Mass, in violation of church law.
The new church temporarily will hold services at The Satuit Lodge of Freemasons in Scituate, every Sunday beginning next weekend.
“These are unprecedented accomplishments by any American parishioner group, and a shining example to hundreds of other parishioner groups,” said Peter Borre, a canonical adviser who has worked with the vigilers’ official nonprofit, The Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini Inc.
“Victory is never final. Defeat is never final. It is courage that counts,” Borre said to the crowd, paraphrasing Sir Winston Churchill.
Yet the vigil, and the endurance it required, also reflected a deep resentment against the Boston Archdiocese among many in the Scituate congregation.
Rogers sharply characterized church hierarchy as feudal overlords who think of parishioners as personal ATMs. McDonough, who offered the service’s homily, said the archdiocese’s policy of saving money by shuttering congregations since the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in 2002 was a “suicidal path of annihilation.” On one of many handmade quilts that hung on a sanctuary wall, an artist represented the Catholic Church as an iron fist supressing the innocent.
“The great tragedy is that those who have no children have destroyed the homes of our children,” said McDonough. “The hierarchy has to lead, fall, or get out of the way. . . . We are the body of Christ.”
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, said the church sympathizes with the parishioners’ sense of loss.
In a statement provided over the weekend, Donilon said that despite disagreements, the church would welcome vigilers back into the “wider community of Catholic faithful in the Archdiocese of Boston.”
Donilon could not be reached Sunday to comment on the parishoners’ plans for a new Catholic church, outside the archdiocese.
“The most important step we can now make as a Catholic family is to continue to work toward reconciliation,” Donilon wrote. “Despite our disagreement over the closing of the parish, we have never lost sight of the fact that we share a commitment to follow Jesus Christ in and through the Roman Catholic Church, which he established. With the conclusion of the vigil, we endeavor to memorialize the spiritual home that was once St. Frances X. Cabrini Parish.”
Nancy Fay, a Scituate resident who has been active throughout the vigil’s 11 years and seven months, said St. Frances’ saga has taught her to separate faith from religion.
“All we wanted to do was be included in the Catholic Church. But [the leadership] has never been here to visit. There was no dialogue,” Fay said. “This is our spiritual home.”
In his statement, Donilon said the church has attempted to communicate with the St. Frances congregation and plans to memorialize the former church on the property.
However, he did not reveal the archdiocese’s specific plans for the property.
On Sunday, parishioners theorized that the archdiocese might bulldoze the oceanfront property to make way for a lucrative property resell.
“It’s so sad,” Grace Lentini said of the prospect of a resell. Lentini married her husband, John, in the St. Frances sanctuary more than 30 years ago.
The Lentinis, who now live in Hull, drove to Scituate for the church’s final service Sunday, and stayed afterward to snap photos of the building’s ornate stained-glass windows, which radiated in the sunlight.
“It would be a sin for the church to just tear this down,” John Lentini said, as he gazed at the windows, the church’s high ceilings, and mounted crucifix.
The intricate and colorful quilts that commemorated each anniversary of the vigil’s start were removed from the brick walls following the service. Each showed the congregation as a white dove, a reference to Frances Xavier Cabrini, the church’s namesake who was canonized for her work with the impoverished and immigrants.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you go to another church?’ But this is where our heart is,” said Christine Arnold, another vigiler from Scituate.
Arnold slept at St. Frances every Friday during the vigil with her triplet sons, Sean, Christian, and Scott, all of whom attended Sunday’s service.
“I took pride in it,” said Sean Arnold, one of the triplet boys.
The brothers, who are now 17-year-old juniors in high school, said they began attending the vigil as 6-year-olds.
Currently, and for the first time in nearly 12 years, they have no plans for Friday.