FALL RIVER — Among the 25 Roman Catholic parishes that once populated Fall River, St. Anne’s has long stood as the most magnificent with its twin onion domes, marble Corinthian columns, and soaring sanctuary of balconies and red oak pews for about 2,000 people.
But what was once a thriving faith community founded by French Canadian immigrants in the 19th century is about to close. Saddled with debt, a crumbling sanctuary, and declining attendance, the Diocese of Fall River plans to celebrate the final Mass at St. Anne’s on Sunday. Two diocesan chapels also close this weekend.
A group of St. Anne’s parishioners is fighting back by filing a canon law appeal, launching a fund-raising campaign, demonstrating outside the church, and collecting signatures for a petition to keep open the parish, which was founded in 1869 . The upper church was dedicated in 1906 .
“You don’t know how many times I have struggled with the thought: How can I close a building like that,” Fall River Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha asked in an interview earlier this month. “And yet we tried every possible option and we couldn’t come up with anything that would solve the problem.”
St. Anne’s demise is deeply felt because its history is closely intertwined with prominent institutions in Fall River, including a credit union and hospital which bear the same name. The number of parishes in the diocese, which includes Cape Cod and the Islands, has fallen from 111 in the early 1990s to 81 now, said John Kearns , a diocesan spokesman.
“It’s just a monumental church,” said Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who led the Fall River diocese from 1992 to 2002.
Visitors to Fall River sometimes would show up at St. Anne’s believing it was the diocesan cathedral, only to be told they went to the wrong church, he said.
During his tenure, O’Malley said the Rev. Marcelo Rossi, a famous Brazilian priest and singer, performed at St. Anne’s, drawing such a large crowd that thousands of people had to be turned away.
“When I left the sacristy I almost couldn’t get to the altar. The crowd was wall to wall,” said O’Malley, who celebrated Mass before Rossi’s concert. “The deacons had to push people aside to make a path so that I could get to the altar.”
Such a scene would be impossible now. The upper sanctuary has been off limits since 2015 when the city deemed it unsafe because of plaster falling from the ceiling. Mass and other church functions moved to the basement shrine.
An architect who examined the structure concluded a complete overhaul of St. Anne’s would cost $13.5 million, the diocese said. For a smaller sum, about $5 million, the upper sanctuary could be repaired and reopened.
A parish in Dartmouth recently completed a renovation project and installed solar panels, and Santo Christo Parish in Fall River is improving its church in phases, Kearns said. Both parishes raised money to fund the work, he said.
But da Cunha said the price at St. Anne’s is too high. The parish has $850,000 in debt, mostly from property and health insurance bills, said Kearns. In 2009, St. Anne School was sold for $1.7 million and most of the money was used to settle the school’s debt and some parish debt, he said.
Attendance at weekend Masses has plunged from nearly 1,400 parishioners in 1991 to just under 400 last year, diocesan figures show.
A planning team of parishioners considered a fund-raising campaign and contacted more than 50 potential donors who could afford to make large contributions, but the response was “tepid at best,” da Cunha wrote last month in a letter announcing St. Anne’s closure.
“At a certain point we have to have the courage and the wisdom to say, however difficult it is, we need to move on,” he said. “The church is also more than just the building. The church is also the people and we need to be concerned about the people. How can we strengthen the faith in this area of Fall River so that we can be there for the people for years to come?”
A devoted group of parishioners, however, clings to hope that the church can be saved.
“St. Anne’s means everything to me,” said Richard Affonso, 39, a carpenter from Fall River who was married there in September. “It made me the person who I am today.”
Affonso has established the St. Anne’s Preservation Society and submitted a canon law appeal to de Cunha on Nov. 13 contesting the decree to close the parish.
The preservation group wants to transform the church into a shrine honoring St. Anne that would be run by lay people who would raise money to repair the building, said Brody Hale, who helped Affonso prepare the canon law appeal.
Such an approach has been used to keep at least 80 church buildings in three countries open as Roman Catholic “sacred spaces” even after the parishes closed, said Hale, founder of the Catholic Church Preservation Society.
Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II has said he wants to preserve St. Anne’s, but it’s unclear how far the city would go to help. Correia is under federal criminal indictment and faces a possible recall election. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Luis Carvalho, 52, a filmmaker who has been praying at the church for five years, launched a $1 million fund-raising campaign on GoFundMe. As of Saturday afternoon, the effort had raised just $6,069.
St. Anne’s and its main sanctuary are worth saving, he said.
“It’s like you’re entering into heaven,” said Carvalho, who lives in Fall River. “Words don’t describe it.”
The Rev. David Deston Jr., St. Anne’s administrator, said he is trying to keep parishioners focused on their faith. Except for a restoration project in the basement shrine about a decade ago, the church hasn’t had any major maintenance since the 1960s, he said.
“It’s hard. They’re losing something very precious. I understand that,” said Deston, 42, who grew up in Fall River and first visited the church as a child.
Da Cunha said he is convening a committee to find a new use for the building. Parishioners are being encouraged to join the newly formed Catholic Community of Central Fall River, a collaboration of four city parishes. Parishioners of St. Bernadette’s Parish, which closed in August, are also being urged to participate.
In the basement shrine, parishioners like Alice Tavares continue to pray among the religious statues and candles. She said she’s contemplating going to nearby Good Shepherd Parish, but she’s not ready to move on.
“I feel like this shrine can’t be replaced,” she said. “It just welcomes you no matter who you are.”