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Their faith holds fast

By Bella English | The Boston Globe | October 29, 2006

It has been two years -- two years and three days, to be exact -- since parishioners at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate began a round-the-clock vigil to protest the closing of their church by the Archdiocese of Boston. Aside from the absence of a priest, you wouldn't know that anything was different. Life continues at St. Frances, a beautiful church just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.

There are lay-led services with the host consecrated by sympathetic priests. The church is a drop-off point for the Scituate Food Pantry, and there are boxes and cans of tuna, spaghetti sauce, and cereal. Donations for an outreach ministry to the homeless are being collected: gift certificates, phone cards, clothing.

Tuesday is liturgical meeting night. Thursday is prayer group night. Friday is family night. Every morning there's a rosary service.

No one -- not the archdiocese, not the parishioners -- would have guessed that a church would remain open for two years after the archdiocese declared it closed and changed the locks. St. Frances is one of five churches that remain in vigil, the only one on the South Shore. Parishioners say they aren't going anywhere

"I believe if we left this building, within an hour the archdiocese would hear about it and they would re take it," says Jon Rogers, a financial planner who, with his wife, Maryellen, has led the vigil effort. They were married in the church that she grew up in. Her brother and father were buried out of there, and for the past two years, her 71-year-old mother has taken her turn sleeping overnight in the church.

Then there's Margy O'Brien, 76, who has been a member of the church since the day it opened in 1961. Her children were baptized at St. Frances; she buried one of them, and her husband, out of there.

When she learned that the archdiocese had changed the locks of her church three days before a parish meeting to discuss a possible vigil, she was furious. Parishioners got access to the church through a side door that a maintenance man had kept open while he worked, and they have been there ever since. Today, O'Brien leads the Thursday night prayer sessions. "My heels are dug right into the sand. I'm not leaving," she pronounces.

A funny thing has happened on the way to this vigil: Parishioners have become more than just people who punch a time clock for Mass every Sunday. Bonded by a faith that has deepened over their common cause, they have become family, the church their home. "I think that's what Christ meant it to be," says Jon Rogers. "We're not just talking about faith, we're living it."

Adds his wife: "We're just one big connected Christian family."

They have also become experts on running a small business: raising the money, paying the bills, seeing to the lights and water and maintenance. They have set up a nonprofit that pays many expenses, which they raise through parishioners; the archdiocese continues to pay the heating bill. "I think we'd be lying if we didn't say we get tired," says Jon. "But you know something? I like it just the way it is. Faith-wise, I'm stronger than I've ever been. It's all about taking care of each other."

A year and a half ago, a single mother stopped by the church, unaware that it was in vigil. She and her children had been evicted and had nowhere to go. Those on vigil worked the phones, and within hours the woman had an apartment. Today, she is a lector; she and her boys sit in vigil regularly.

The group has filed a canon appeal to Rome and a civil lawsuit asking that their church be officially reopened. In their filings, they contend that the people own the church, that the archdiocese merely acts as a "spiritual management company." The vigilers have presented several solutions to the archdiocese, including the sale of 25 of the church's 30 prime acres, sparing the church, parish center, and parking lot. Although they have twice met with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, they haven't gotten an answer.

As for the archdiocese, spokesman Terrence Donilon says the cardinal is waiting for Rome to rule on the canon appeal before taking any action on St. Frances.

"We want these to end peacefully and prayerfully," Donilon says of the vigils, "and honestly, what we need at this point is people to help us. . . . We're trying very hard to rebuild the church of Boston. We understand that this has been painful, we understand this has been frustrating . . . but that doesn't mean that hard decisions won't get made." The cardinal, says Donilon, realizes that the process was flawed, but the majority of Catholics in closed churches have moved on to other parishes.

The reconfiguration process began in 2004, with plans to close dozens of churches because of declining attendance and collections, decrepit buildings, and a shortage of priests. According to the archdiocese's website, 67 parishes have been closed and nine new ones established.

The folks at St. Frances say they would hire retired priests -- with their own funds -- if the archdiocese would just reopen the doors. In the church foyer hang a couple of aerial photos of the church, showing its proximity to the ocean. They serve as a reminder, parishioners say, of the real reason they believe their church was targeted: real estate worth millions of dollars. Parishioners maintain that Scituate is booming, with a record number of building permits and a commuter rail planned, and a second Catholic church is needed.

They remain hopeful that their reprieve will come through the courts, or the Vatican. They say they have lost faith in their own archdiocese. But their religious faith remains deep. "What we need is a fundamental change in the church to survive," says Jon Rogers. "We need a change of management, not a bunch of old men without any real-life experience waving their fingers at us and using us as their own private ATMs. They need to engage talented, creative people to find a solution to the problems they have created."

Late on a recent night, the sanctuary was peaceful and silent as those on vigil took to the various side rooms that contain cots, bunk beds, and air mattresses. The foyer was filled with the belts, scarves, and jewelry crafted as people took their turn in the pews.

The crucifix over the altar was lit, as were the peace quilts made by a parishioner.

There may not be a priest in residence at St. Frances, but there is no question that this is, indeed, a place of worship.

Columnist Bella English of Milton can be reached at English@globe.com.