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At St. Frances, tears and anger

By Michael Levenson, Globe Correspondent | April 1, 2005

SCITUATE -- Steadying herself with one hand on a small card table, Jeanne Hennebery, 80, leaned over and switched off the volume on a cheap radio in the entryway to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parish in Scituate.

There was nothing more to hear. The radio report had confirmed parishioners' worst fears: The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was keeping their church closed. Their prayers had not been answered; their round-the-clock vigil had failed to sway church leaders.

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Now, they were alone: eight women in a church foyer, a glass dish of chocolates, a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, a signup sheet for the vigil, and feelings of anger, hurt, and abandonment.

''Arrogant men," fumed Marsha Devir, 50, who had prepared Italian dinners, led Girl Scout troops, and taught religious education classes inside the soaring brick church, which opened in 1961 and closed, officially, last October.

Kim Brown, 36, held her son, Daniel, 10 months, in her arms and wept. Muriel Donohue, 65, who played organ at the last Mass, wept. Patti Litz, 57, whose children were married in the church, wept as she stood outside in the bright March sunshine.

"It just hurts me so much that a beautiful church has to close," Brown said, as her other children Madeline, 2, and Devin, 5, looked on, ashen. Brown said she had become convinced that St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was a victim of its real estate.

Built when this South Shore community was considered the Irish Riviera, the church towers over a wide clearing on the side of a wooded road; ocean views beckon just over the treetops.

"The biggest problem is we have 30 acres of buildable land," Devir said. Brown said church leaders never understood the commitment parishioners had put in to the parish and the vigil.

"They're not seeing the whole picture," Brown said. ''They're just seeing dollar signs. You know what? Sell some of your Vatican jewels. We need this church as a town and as a community."

Barbara Nappa, 70, said she felt adrift. ''I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. ''I have no place to go. I just don't feel comfortable any place."

Litz said she didn't want to think about the future. ''We kept the faith," she said. ''And when our own church turns its back on us, that's what makes it more difficult. I just feel they abandoned us in our home, our home of worship."

Hennebery said she was ending her financial support for the archdiocese. ''No more money for them, that's for sure," she said. Nappa nodded in agreement. ''Not one dime," she said.

The vigil's future was suddenly up in the air. No one was sure whether to continue, though some said they wanted to. By phone, Jon Rogers, a leader, said he would consider a number of options, including hiring a married priest to lead Masses at the church.
''Are they going to evict us?" Hennebery asked. No one answered. Someone said there was still an appeal pending before the Vatican. Maybe the church would be rebuilt in a few years, as Scituate grows, Brown said.

''They're going to have to build another church in five or six years, and it'll cost them five times as much," said Margaret O'Brien, 75.

O'Brien, who has been worshiping at the church since it opened, said she would return to the parish in Cohasset where she prayed in the 1950s. She might not spend any more time inside St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, but that did not mean she was leaving the community behind, she said.

''A very good thing has happened in this vigil," she said. ''A strong faith community has formed. There have been many little miracles happening. People's lives have been touched, some improved. And I think this group of vigilers will be a strong community forever. I don't regret doing this at all. Not one moment."