A vigil of faith, hope endures
Occupation's anniversary finds no resolution in sight
SCITUATE -- Every Friday night, an hour after their usual 8 o'clock bedtime, Sean, Scott, and Christian Arnold arrive at church, clad in Disney, motorcycle, and Shrek pajamas, respectively. The 7-year-old triplets patter down the aisle in slippers or bare feet, dragging sleeping bags behind them. Sometimes they remember to genuflect before turning left at the altar and -- trying not to run -- laying claim to the bouncy air mattresses that fill the sacristy.
The boys are among the dozens of people who are maintaining a 24-hour vigil at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. They take turns on mattresses nicknamed ''Jello rollercoasters," put together thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, and pass time quilting, crocheting, or praying, as part of a campaign to save the church, which was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston a year ago. On Wednesday, the church community will celebrate the one-year anniversary of their occupation, with a prayer service lighted by 365 candles.
Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, said Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley hopes the six vigils among Boston area parishes, including the one at St. Frances, will soon end ''in a peaceful and prayerful manner," and ''those who still resist what is a very widely known and accepted need for reconfiguration will join their fellow Catholics."
The archdiocese announced its intention to shutter the parish in May 2004, and the decision was supported by the archdiocese's Meade-Eisner Reconfiguration Review Committee, which advised reversing some closures and turning some churches into chapels.
''We haven't seen anything yet here . . . but by this church and other churches going into vigil, we changed [the archdiocese's] plans," said Bobbie Sullivan, among the vigil participants in Scituate.
After 306 days in vigil, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth reopened this summer. Churches in Boston, Everett, Wellesley, and Framingham remain occupied.
The vigil at St. Frances began with a bit of luck, from the parishioners' point of view. The locks on the church had been changed before they could decide how to respond to the archdiocese's plan to close the church, but a parishioner discovered that one door had been left ajar and slipped inside. She stayed in the church, waiting until someone could relieve her, and the vigil grew from there.
Over the past year, the determined group of parishioners has ensured, through snow, through a malfunctioning heating system, through nights filled with the loud creaking of windows, that someone is always in residence.
The ''Quilt of the Hours" to be unveiled at Wednesday night's prayer service tells the story of their vigil. A colorful replica of the signup sheet has been stitched together. Fabric doors -- signifying the unlocked portal that started the vigil on Oct. 26, 2004 -- are scattered across the quilt, and behind each door is a photo of a participating parishioner and a pocket to hold their notes or mementos. Sullivan, a professional quilt-maker who often spends her vigil hours stitching, said she hopes to sew up the pockets so the quilt will become a time capsule.
The group that has celebrated the Red Sox World Series win, mourned the pope's death, and this spring began holding its own Sunday Masses say its members have grown closer to God, and each other, over the past year.
They also have gotten organized, and have filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese in Suffolk Superior Court in their bid to retain control of the church property. Their motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the archdiocese from selling the church was denied on Oct. 14, but the judge granted their request that a ''memorandum of lis pendens" be filed at the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds to let potential buyers know that the property is the subject of a lawsuit.
The town of Scituate sent a $42,000 property tax bill to the archdiocese in July, stating that the land no longer retained its nonprofit status.
In hours of strategy meetings and prayer, frustrated parishioners have likened O'Malley to Judas, suggested they are being unfairly suppressed because the church sits on 30.3 acres of valuable waterfront property, and voiced concern that Scituate's booming population will soon outgrow the other area churches.
''It's like Catholic 'Survivor' and we've been cast away," said Jon Rogers, chairman of the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini Parish, who says the vigil has taken on the role of his ''spiritual home."
''It's my Mass; this is where I come to receive the Eucharist," said Rogers. ''I'm kind of wondering what it's going to be like when we do get a priest. . . . It's much more of a family now than it has ever been before."
Archdiocese spokesman Donilon said the Catholic Church is facing challenging times, but St. Frances remains a blessed church, and O'Malley hopes to find a satisfactory conclusion to the vigils and is in the process of scheduling a meeting with each of the groups. ''The church needs to be able to resolve this issue, in a manner that suits everybody's needs," he said.
But parishioners say their form of church, in which commitments run deeper than a 45-minute Mass, is exactly what they were missing.
James T. Clifford said he grew disillusioned, driven away from the church, after the priest sex scandals and the church closings began. But shortly after St. Frances went into vigil, he said, he found himself drawn back by its ''holy aura."
Patty Ringler, who helped found the church 42 years ago, said her family simply stopped going to church a year ago, but now attends the lay-led Sunday services at St. Frances.
''My family hasn't been able to move on," she said. ''And it's too bad, because my daughter was an altar server at St. Frances, and I taught CCD. We went to Mass every Sunday. When it closed, you just didn't feel comfortable going somewhere else."
Wendy Grace, whose children received confirmation and first communion over the last year at St. Mary's in Scituate, said those emotional experiences had extra meaning.
''I was born and raised at St. Frances; all my children were baptized there. I was married there; my best friend was buried from there in the past two years," she said. Grace said she misses everything from the striking stained-glass windows to the crying room, where she used to shush her now 2-year-old child during services.
The participants have weathered surgery, hospitalizations, births, and deaths, and made new friends over the past year.
Hope is strong in the church, and shifts have become part of the routine for many families. The triplets, always full of energy, have one big question for their mother, Christine Arnold: When the church opens, where are they going to sleep?
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.