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Parishioners plead for their church as Archbishop O'Malley visits

By Mary Ford | mford@cnc.com
Thursday, January 20, 2005

For at least 50 minutes - roughly the length of Sunday's 9:30 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony's in Cohasset - Archbishop Sean O'Malley could put aside divisiveness and disruption in the diocese and preach on the universal themes of love, sacrifice, fidelity, dedication and peace on earth.

His distinctive, rich voice resonated throughout the pristine church adorned with white poinsettias whose leaves complemented the kelly-green vestments worn by the Archbishop, his secretary the Rev. Brian Buchard, and the Rev. John Mulvehill, St. Anthony's pastor.

"We need to make time and space for God in our lives," O'Malley said.

Upwards of 500 people of all ages ranging from newborns to nonagenarians filled the church. The audience warmly received O'Malley's message, which was interrupted by hymns featuring soloist Lily Sestito, and the congregation broke into applause at the end of the service.

But among the regular St. Anthony's parishioners were a number of unwilling newcomers from neighboring Scituate, who won't give up to fight to save their church, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini - one of 80 parishes closed in recent months as part of a reconfiguration plan in the Boston Archdiocese.

"I did enjoy the Mass," Dorothy Creutz emphatically said on her way out of the service. "But now I'm going back to my own church."

But Scituate residents - Christine Kane, accompanied by her son, Kevin, 9, and her mother, Patti Litz - stayed to have a word with O'Malley at the informal reception following the service at St. Anthony's Parish Hall.

"While we have been feeling very welcome at St. Anthony's," Kane said, "we want to ask the Archbishop to reconsider and keep us open.

"As our leader, it is important that he hears what we have to say."

Barbara Nappa is also helping to maintain a 24-hour vigil at St. Frances. She and the other Scituate parishioners wore pins featuring either a picture of the St. Frances Church building or a dove that arrived at the church before it closed and has become a sign to the parishioners that the church is meant to stay open.

"The Archbishop's homily was beautiful," Nappa said. "It is wonderful to welcome us to St. Anthony's but this is not our church. I want to invite him to visit St. Frances and it is worth a try."

"I never thought I would have that opportunity to talk to him," said Litz after returning to St. Frances Church later that day. "Just the fact that he was listening and not running away was very powerful."

But while O'Malley was very approachable to the many waiting in line at the reception, he didn't appear to be willing to budge off of his decision to close St. Frances.

"It is good to be here," O'Malley said. "We know transition is difficult but are happy so many have begun to find their spiritual home here."

In a letter to sent to St. Frances last spring explaining the church closings, O'Malley cited population changes, movement of people from the cities to the suburbs, the shortage of priests and decrease in the number of active Catholics as factors contributing to the decision to close parishes. He stated one-third of the archdiocese's parishes are operating in the red and said the reconfigurations are not a result of a need to pay legal settlements stemming from the clergy abuse scandal. He said funds gained by parish closings will be used to help support those parishes and schools remaining open.

With 1,000 families and an average of 804 parishioners attending weekend Masses at St. Frances, the archdiocese felt St. Mary the Nativity Church in Scituate Harbor and Cohasset's St. Anthony's could absorb the St. Frances parishioners.

On Sunday O'Malley noted St. Anthony's was large enough to accommodate the extra parishioners. He described Cohasset as a lovely, beautiful town.

The Rev. Matthew Bradley of the Foyer of Charity, a retreat center on Hollett Street in Scituate, said he was glad O'Malley came to Cohasset and that the parishioners were clearly delighted to see the Archbishop.

"But I hope his contacts with St. Frances Parish give him a more complete perspective on what is at play there in dispersing the community," he said.

The Rev. John Mulvehill, St. Anthony's pastor, said due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, a lot of the regular parishioners were away skiing. He said the church has a capacity of 750. Before Christmas roughly 600 more people attended liturgies than is past years. He said St. Anthony's can accommodate the extra people and has not had to add masses.

In an interview Tuesday, Mulvehill said the Archbishop made a wonderful homily and noted he thanked St. Anthony's for welcoming those from St. Frances to the parish.

"I'm sure he feels the pain of the people who have been displaced everywhere he goes," Mulvehill said.

Not all those from Scituate were upset, however. Faith Bowker Maloney, who grew up in North Scituate, said St. Anthony's was her parish before St. Frances was built some 40 years ago. "It's my natural home," she said.

John Rogers, parishioner of St. Frances and force behind the 24-hour vigil at the church, did not go to the Mass because of obvious reasons, he said.

"That's not our receiving church," he said. "I love St. Anthony's, but this is our church. This is our home."

"If I'm playing Scituate football, I'm not going to wear Cohasset colors," he added.