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Massachusetts church vigil ending after 11 years

A sign marks the vigil at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Roman Catholic Church in Scituate, Mass., on July 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File photo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHURCH-VIGIL, originally transmitted on May 23, 2016.

(RNS) After 11 years of defiantly occupying a parish building that the Archdiocese of Boston ordered closed in 2004, the people of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in Scituate, Mass., are finally handing over the keys.

The tenacious protesters, angry their parish would be closed in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, lost their final Hail Mary bid to reopen the church May 16 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case.

Having pursued all viable options, including a petition under canon law that was denied by the Vatican, the group plans to vacate after a final worship service on Sunday, May 29, according to Jon Rogers, co-founder of the Friends of St. Frances vigil group.

“We made a promise when we started this process that we would exhaust every avenue of appeal, and we have,” Rogers said.

Working in shifts, a core group of some 100 parishioners has kept vigil 24/7 since Oct. 26, 2004. They stored food in a pantry, kept sleeping bags in drawers and took turns sleeping overnight in a former confessional-turned-guest room. Just one rule applied: Don’t let the archdiocese come in and shut us down.

Reopening the parish was not their only goal. They were also determined to prevent the archdiocese, which agreed to an $85 million settlement with clergy sexual abuse victims in 2003, from taking possession and replenishing its coffers by selling off the 1960s-era church building and its 30 valuable acres in an upscale suburb on the coast.

The parish was one of nine in the Boston area where parishioners refused to leave when the archdiocese undertook a massive restructuring that would shutter about one-fifth of its 357 parishes.

Four of those vigils lasted at least four years, including one in Wellesley that endured until 2012. When Cabrini is vacated, the last of the Boston area vigils will be over, but allies say the impact is not finished.

“They set out deliberately to test both the civil law system and the canonical law system to the absolute limit, and that’s what they’ve done,” said Peter Borre, an adviser to parishes resisting closure through the church’s canon law system.

“They have become the poster boys and girls for parishioners who won’t go quietly. And I think this has caused a change in attitude in Rome.”

For years, the archdiocese tried in vain to persuade the Friends of St. Frances to leave. When those efforts failed, the archdiocese sued to take possession and won, including two appeal verdicts. Now the church is ready to move on from what’s been a difficult, drawn-out chapter.

“Given the denial of the Friends of St. Frances Cabrini’s petition, we ask them to end their vigil and leave the property within 14 days in accordance with the agreement filed with the Superior Court,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “The parishes of the archdiocese welcome and invite those involved with the vigil to participate and join in the fullness of parish life.”

Those who’ve kept vigil have no plans to join another archdiocesan parish, Rogers said. Nor will they end their uninterrupted pattern of gathering weekly for Mass. But changes are in store as the congregation morphs into what Rogers calls “an all-inclusive, independent Catholic church” with no Roman Catholic affiliation.

Parishioner Maria Alves knits while sitting vigil at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Roman Catholic church in Scituate, Massachusetts on July 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHURCH-VIGIL, originally transmitted on May 20, 2016.

Parishioner Maria Alves knits while sitting vigil at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Roman Catholic Church in Scituate, Mass., on July 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHURCH-VIGIL, originally transmitted on May 23, 2016.

Newly reconstituted as The Church of America, the congregation will hold its first worship service on June 5 at a rented facility in Scituate. Holy Communion will be done differently. At Cabrini for the past 11 years, churchgoers have received elements consecrated in advance by sympathetic priests and administered by laity. At The Church of America, clergy from various denominations will take turns presiding, as will former Catholic priests who left the priesthood to get married.

The Church of America aims to draw heavily from the ranks of Roman Catholics who stopped attending Mass after the abuse crisis came to light, or quit the church entirely.

“You have a large, disenfranchised group of people out there who are faithful Catholics and who are no longer served because their churches have been taken from them, destroyed and sold off to the highest bidder,” Rogers said. “We believe this is an incredible opportunity for us to re-evangelize.”

Other Catholic activists agreed with the notion that the faithful were disenfranchised in this episode.

“We’re sad that neither the Vatican nor the civil courts would recognize the rights of the faith community to keep its church open,” said Nick Ingala, spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic reform group that formed during the abuse crisis, in an email.

Though protesters will no longer keep vigil, they aim to keep vigilant.

They’ve had plenty of practice. Keeping watch has meant being always ready to make three calls — to the police, the attorneys and the news media — if anyone should ever arrive to evict or change locks. That never happened. So now they’re packing up their toaster ovens, lamps and sleeping bags with hopes of transporting vigilance to a new place.

“What the 11 years has taught us is that God wants us to go in this direction,” Rogers said. “And that’s to probably go back to the basics of his Word and our faith and recreate it in a transparent and all-welcoming environment.”

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

11 Comments

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  • This is sad indeed, on so many levels. Yes, it was a terrible injustice that their parish would have to close due to the abuse and the scandals; however, are these people sure it was due only to this? At any rate, no, I am positive it is not God’s will for them to break off and form their own “church,” no matter what their reasons or what injustices were done. Suffer, pray, and work towards reform in holiness, and this includes only within obedience and within the Church, as all the saints did. “Remain in Me,” is what Our Savior says. That refers to His Church. They will accomplish nothing by doing this, except ensure their own spiritual demise and cause scandal and confusion. They do not know better nor are they more holy or just than the bishops who they perceive have slighted them so grievously. Remain in the body of Christ, pray, pursue holiness, work for justice, and let the results work out as God sees fit!

  • Joe, the precious blood retains the properties of wine, so it tastes like wine; I’m not sure what you’re saying. The priests they are using include those who have left the priesthood; these actually do remain priests, but they are not permitted to employ their priestly faculties so it is all not legitimate, though I believe it still would be the body and blood of Christ. I’m sure they are not and will not be careful to have only priests that have been validly ordained in the Church (the actual one, not the one they are pretending to found) so their Communion may or may not be truly the body and blood of Christ.

  • Maybe the results are working out just as God sees fit.

    That’s the beauty of it. You never know, ya know?

  • Jen,
    Catholic priests who are validly ordained remain priests into eternity. A laicized priest may validly absolve someone in the danger of death only! All other sacraments should not be celebrated by such a priest.
    The idea you seem to be addressing is valid vs. illicit sacraments. A laicized Catholic priest who celebrates the sacraments confects valid but illicit sacraments. The sacrament is present but the power to administer them is not. Any faithful Catholic should only receive valid and licit sacraments. In terms of the Eucharist, the host is validly consecrated but the priest has no authority to do so or even administer it to himself or others. To do so is grave error on the part of the priest or any person who knowingly participates.
    As far as these vigil-keeping Catholics, if they do move to some other ecclesial community they are in schism. We need to pray that they may rethink this idea. It seems that in their “zeal for the house of God” they have lost their way and are now on the same road as Luther et al.
    Civil disobedience is still disobedience and as Catholics such disobedience can endanger one’s immortal soul.
    Let us pray

  • You are greatly mistaken; I am Catholic. Yes, the consecrated Eucharist becomes the real presence (body and blood) of Christ, but absolutely do retain the properties of bread and wine. I never left my children with anyone actually.

  • I understand that being sued by the Church is equivalent to or worse hurtful than being sued by one’s parents. This instance and others like it may be pointing to the need for an overhaul in Canon Law in Roman Catholicism.

    Yet don’t the people have some equal rites here, some “ownership” of the parish or are we all like renters with the owners of the “property” fully enabled to shut it down?

    Remember…the ROMAN Catholic Church is NOT THE Catholic Church. It is only one Rite in union with 23 others and the Pope.

    Members of St. Francis Cabrini Church might want to keep its affiliation with the larger Catholic Church which, yes, does include the Roman Rite…the rite which passed the faith on to so many of us, the rite which is just as fallible as the rest of us… the admission of which fallibility would be a virtue if/when they/we can face it.
    Google Rite Beyond Rome… for a different look at a Catholicism both “separate from yet one-with” each other.

  • Under the code of canon law, these people had a right to appeal the decision of the archdiocese of Boston. However, in conducting unauthorized and Illicit services, including smuggling in the Eucharist from “sympathetic priests” for “Communion Services” conducted by laypeople, they attempted to legitimize their existence as a parish by offering ” liturgical” worship in “simulating” a Mass like service. Catholics are aware that the Mass, celebrated by a validly ordained priest who is authorized by the local bishop, is the only form of valid and legitimate Catholic worship.

    St John Paul II, in speaking about the priesthood and its connection to parish life said, ” No parish can consider itself to be Catholic, unless there is the presence of a priest. That presence, through apostolic succession, guarantees the legitimacy and validity of sacramental rites through an essential link with the original Apostolic College, and their legitimate successors, the bishops.”

    It is no surprise, that this group wishes to set up their own church. It is, in fact, what they have done for the past decade. As a schismatic community, they can call themselves anything they like. However, they will no longer be Catholic.

  • The core of the problem is a lack of effort, on everyone’s part, to go out and evangelize. The Lord has given us an incredible Feast of Mercy to help bring back fallen-away Catholics. We need to realize that this is God’s gift to us, in our final days, before He returns as the just judge. In the case of this parish, every effort should have been made, by both priests and parishioners, to re-fill it with returning, lost Catholics. May the Lord have mercy on those clergy and parishioners, who have turned their backs on this great gift.

  • Good for them forming a new church. There are dozens of Catholic denominations created because the RCC is an enormous corporate entity more focused on power and wealth than anything else.

    I had hoped pope Francisco would be a reformer and return the RCC to its original purpose as a church, rather than a political force. But the level of corruption is so deeply entrenched it doesn’t look like he’s going to be able to pull the necessary reforms off. Too bad.

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