It has been 12 years -- and 5 days, to be exact -- since St. Frances X. Cabrini church in Scituate was declared closed by the Archdiocese of Boston, as part of a sweeping reconfiguration process necessitated by dwindling attendance and collections, a shortage of priests, and a multimillion-dollar settlement with victims of the priest sexual abuse scandal.
But until last Memorial Day, a group of parishioners refused to leave the premises, staging a 24/7 vigil that finally ended when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case between them and the archdiocese. On May 30, the day after a Mass that drew nearly 500, the Friends of St. Frances vacated the church property near the ocean -- 30 acres appraised by the town of Scituate at $4.2 million.
It didn’t take long for the Friends, led by Maryellen and Jon Rogers, to establish a new church, which is meeting at the Satuit Lodge of Freemasons in Scituate, while they plan a capital campaign for their own church building.
Here’s how Maryellen Rogers describes it: “We are an ecumenical Catholic church, we are still valid practicing Catholics, part of the universal Catholic Church, not the Roman Catholic Church. So if you join our church community, you would see a welcoming Catholic experience but you would not be supporting the Roman Catholic Church or the Archdiocese of Boston.”
Catholicism, Rogers notes, “is much broader than just the Roman Catholic Church.”
Since the beginning, the archdiocese has asked the Friends to join other churches within its purview. This week, the hierarchy repeated the invitation. “Their sense of loss from the closing of the parish is understandable,” spokesman Terry Donilon says. “The most important step we can now make as a Catholic family is to continue to work toward reconciliation ... with the hope that this can lead to them rejoining the parishes of the archdiocese.”
But after a lengthy and costly legal battle that went to the highest courts of both the Vatican and the United States -- after the archdiocese sued in civil court to get the vigilers to leave -- the divorce from the archdiocese seems final.
At the Satuit Lodge, services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m. The first three Sundays of each month are priest-led Masses, and the fourth Sunday is a lay-led communion service, in honor of all the years vigilers did so. “We are going to honor that tradition forever,” Rogers says, adding that all of the sacraments are offered, and about 100 people have been attending Mass weekly.
Jon and Maryellen were married at St. Frances, and her family was among the builders of the church in 1959-60. “St. Frances was built 100 percent by parishioners’ blood, sweat, tears, and donations,” she says. “I remember my grandparents going door to door.”
The couple notes that when it was targeted for closure, St. Frances had 3,000 registered parishioners, a large youth group, well-maintained buildings and grounds, money in the coffers, and even a church and school in India.
“The value of the property was much more important to Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley than the value of the parishioners,” Maryellen Rogers says, noting that O’Malley refused to meet with them to consider alternatives to closure, including an offer from the Friends to buy back the church.
Now, the Friends are looking for land near the St. Frances site, which included a rectory, the church, and a parish center with basketball courts, a stage, a kitchen that hosted games, dances, outreach programs, and suppers. The archdiocese sold the rectory in 2012, and the parish hall fell into disrepair over the years.
But the church was maintained by the vigilers, who replaced the furnace and kneelers, repaired the roof, fixed the lighting, and groomed the grounds. The Friends continue to hold fund-raisers for various social causes including the local food pantry and have started Cabrini’s Closet, donating clothes to families in need.
Jon Rogers says that the new church wants to draw from other towns south of Boston, not just Scituate. “This is the seeds of a brand new church, a simple structure, the way Christ would have it,” he says. “It will just be a spiritual home where people can be comfortable without being awestruck or overwhelmed by a hierarchical system. It will be run by the people and for the people.”
Both stress that the church remains Catholic. “We are valid, practicing Catholics,” she says. The Friends recently held a blessing of the pets, and are planning for a Nov. 12 spaghetti supper and Christmas Eve and Christmas Masses.
But the bitter feelings toward the archdiocese were recently reinforced when the Friends heard that the pews paid for by parishioners when St. Frances was built, with plaques bearing family names, were removed and given to another church. “Parishioners paid $300 in 1959 and 1960 to dedicate a pew to the family or a loved one’s name,” Maryellen recalls. “That was a lot of money then. My parents couldn’t afford to buy a pew.”
Donilon, who says St. Frances has not yet been sold, stressed that “the archdiocese takes great care of any items from closed churches” and gives them to other parishes.
Pews or not, the Friends are excited about their new church. “I think we’ve earned the right to have our own home, and to make sure we have a place to house all the people who want to be surrounded by friends, family, and community,” Jon says. “Our goal is to have our own church home that can never be taken from us, because this church will be a church of the people.”
Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.