When the invitation arrived, I was startled. Could it really be 10 years since parishioners at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth refused to leave the church after the archdiocese pronounced it closed?
Saturday night at the Weymouth Elks Lodge, parishioners were gathering to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their 10-month vigil, which spawned other church vigils — and which, for St. Albert’s, ultimately proved successful. Globe photographer Matt Lee and I chronicled those months in the pews, as angry parishioners protested the closing of their church on Sept. 1, 2004, by occupying it full time.
The archdiocese called it reconfiguration, the closing of some parishes and the merging of others, necessitated, it said, by declining attendance and collections, the poor condition of many churches, and a shortage of priests. But St. Albert’s met none of those criteria: Its pews and coffers were full, its buildings in good shape.
Parishioners thought — and some still think — that the real reason their church was targeted was their popular priest, the Rev. Ronald Coyne, a progressive figure who had taken over during the priest sex abuse crisis. Coyne was one of 58 priests who signed a letter calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
At Coyne’s final Mass at St. Albert’s, he got a standing ovation. As I wrote at the time: “Kleenex boxes dotted every pew. Worshipers lined the outer aisles, stood in the back, crowded into the foyer and spilled onto the front steps.”
That last Sunday, a member of the parish council read a statement thanking Coyne for teaching them to ask questions. “We will no longer blindly follow the mandates set down by the institution,” the statement said. “We now understand that we are the church and we are followers of Christ and not the Archdiocese of Boston.”
Parishioners were thrilled when the archdiocese reversed its decision and the church reopened on July 2, 2005. But they were devastated that Coyne was not reassigned to them.
But a decade later, they are celebrating their memories of sleeping in the pews, taking care of church property and bills, continuing with social action projects, and organizing social activities. “We were the first church to go into vigil and the only one to reopen,” says Pat Itz, who, with her husband George, raised three boys in the church.
The vigil, she says, created a sense of community and purpose. “I learned that my faith was very important to me. You might think it would be the young people rebelling, but it was many of the oldest people in the parish saying, ‘We’re not closing.’ ”
The irony, Itz says, is that the archdiocese has always told people which parishes they belonged to. “You could only go to one church, so you built your life around that — your activities, your kids’ activities. And then they took it away.”
Sharon Harrington was a member of the parish council. “The vigil was one of the worst times in my life, in the insecurity of losing my faith home and community,” she says. “But it was also one of the best of times because it forced me and all of us to step up to a more active role in our faith. Leading a prayer service really forces you to think much deeper about what you really believe, as does the act of vigiling itself.”
Harrington left St. Albert’s to join St. Mary’s in Randolph, the parish where Coyne had been assigned. And when Coyne left St. Mary’s, she followed him to the Hyde Park-Readville-Milton collaborative where he is pastor, at Most Precious Blood, St. Anne, and St. Pius, respectively.
Other churches followed St. Albert’s lead, notably St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, which on Oct. 26 will mark its 10-year anniversary in round-the-clock vigil. “St. Albert’s parishioners are our role model, our heroes,” says Maryellen Rogers, a leader of the St. Frances vigil.
“We love them,” says her husband, Jon. “They have been our mentor and our support from the very get-go. They pioneered the vigil.”
But St. Frances protesters are the veterans of the movement. As they enter their 11th year in vigil, the Friends of St. Frances will hold a fund-raising celebration on Nov. 1 at Hatherly Country Club in Scituate. Their appeals to Rome have been unsuccessful, and the archdiocese has deconsecrated the church building.
In a letter on July 29, Archbishop Sean O’Malley asked the Friends to leave the church. “We hope it is appreciated that the archdiocese has shown its respect and patience for those who have occupied this site,” he wrote.
But the vigilers think not, noting that O’Malley has refused to meet with them. They think their church was targeted because it sits on 30 acres of prime real estate two blocks from the ocean. From the start, they say, they’ve offered a compromise: let the archdiocese sell 25 acres, but spare the church, parish center, and parking lot.
But the archdiocese has repeatedly said it will not sell to the parishioners, and has called on them to join other parishes. “With the canonical process concluded and the decision of the Church on this matter final, I ask those in vigil to abide by that decision,” O’Malley said in his letter.
The Friends continue to have lay-led services, and support the Scituate Food Pantry, as well as homeless and veterans causes. They’re also working on an appeal to Pope Francis himself. “It’s an appeal from the parish directly to the Pope,” says Jon Rogers. “It’s more of a Hail Mary, not bound by canonical law.”
Asked about the prospect of vigilers being forcibly removed from the church, Rogers says: “There is no one here who wants to be arrested — it’s the last thing we want. I think jail should be reserved for convicted pedophile priests.”Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org