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A journey of faith and resolve

By Bella English | November 4, 2007 | The Boston Globe

Bobbie Sullivan and Sean Arnold, 8, make lavender wands yesterday outside St. Francis X. Cabrini church in Scituate. Bobbi Sullivan fashioned a quilt to represent the parishioners' journey.

It has been three years since the Archdiocese of Boston, as part of its controversial church closing plan, locked parishioners out of St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate. At least, the archdiocese thought it had locked them out.

But as fate - dumb luck? divine intervention? - would have it, a parishioner was somehow able to get into a side door that first day, called in the troops, and they've been there ever since. Oct. 26 marked the three-year anniversary of the 24/7 sit-in, or as organizer Maryellen Rogers puts it: 36 months, or 1,095 days, or 2,628 hours, or 1,576,800 minutes.

The faithful celebrated last Sunday with a prayer service that featured a "journey quilt" fashioned by parishioner Bobbi Sullivan. Divided into three panels, each representing a year in vigil, the quilt depicts a road that winds its way toward the church. "The people walking this road are determined and focused, exuberant and mindful of the course before them," says Rogers. There's a stone wall representing the strength of the vigilers, a bridge for "bridging the gap" with the archdiocese.

On the left side is the church, surrounded by parishioners, with the sea beyond. Parishioners believe their church was singled out for closure and sale because it sits on 30 acres of prime real estate near the Atlantic Ocean - something the archdiocese denies. On the right side of the quilt is the Scituate lighthouse, with a dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The back of the quilt is signed by vigilers and visitors to the church, with comments and prayers.

At the celebration, several parishioners offered testimony of their three years in the pews - and on the mattresses set up outside the sanctuary. Jim Clifford is 90 and one of the founding members of St. Frances, where he raised seven children. Though he had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up for the vigil, he says he would do it again.

"I have been an observant Catholic since my first Communion 83 years ago, and in all that time, I have never, never felt from the church hierarchy the love, the compassion, the commitment, and the caring that I feel in this, our community of faith," he told fellow celebrants.

At the outset, parishioners sued the archdiocese in Suffolk Superior Court, claiming that the people - not the hierarchy - paid for, built, maintained, and therefore own the church. The claim was denied and is being appealed. Parishioners also have a similar canonical appeal filed with the Vatican.

For its part, the archdiocese recently filed a suit against the Town of Scituate and its Board of Assessors, seeking relief from real estate taxes imposed on the "closed" property. According to the complaint, St. Frances "remains, under Canon Law, a sacred place designated for divine worship" - and therefore, not taxable.

Maryellen and Jon Rogers, who were married at St. Frances, consider this the worst sort of hypocrisy. "When it comes to the tax issue, the archdiocese is claiming that we're a divine place of worship. But when it comes to selling off our church and property around it, they say we're just an empty building." Jon Rogers chuckles. "There could actually be a situation where our civil appeal could be going on in one courtroom, with the archdiocese claiming we're not a church, and in another courtroom in the same courthouse, they could be arguing for tax purposes that we are a church."

A spokesman for the archdiocese calls the taxation "meddling in church affairs" and says the archdiocese has paid about $40,000 to the town. "I'm sure some of the inner-city churches would love to have that for their resources," says Terrence Donilon.

In a statement, the archdiocese said the town's denial of tax-exempt status for religious property owned by the church violates the laws "and sets a dangerous precedent for the Catholic Church and other religious denominations."

At St. Frances, folks stress that they've offered, in vain, to sell 25 of the 30 prime acres, leaving the church, parish center, and parking lot, with the proceeds going to the archdiocese.

Parishioners also say Scituate is receiving scant "pastoral coverage" compared with surrounding communities. Hingham, with about the same population as Scituate, has two Catholic churches, while Cohasset - less than half the size - has one church, the same as Scituate, now that St. Frances is closed. With record building permits and now commuter rail, the town needs two churches, parishioners argue.

At first glance, you'd never know that St. Frances isn't officially open for business. There are services - lay-led - bulletins, parish meetings, social outings, and social service projects: a Uganda outreach ministry to help build a school, medical center, and homes; aid to a homeless shelter in Tennessee; and a hospice in Plymouth.

But there is one glaring omission: There is no priest and so no sacraments, central to the Catholic faith. The archdiocese has refused to supply a priest for a single Mass, though it has done so on occasion for other churches in vigil.

"Our pastoral needs have been neglected," says Maryellen Rogers. "We are going out and find a Roman Catholic priest who can help us with our needs, if I have to run an ad."

Her husband, a financial planner, puts it in stronger terms. "The archdiocese needs to make the choice now. Either open us as a fully functioning church or leave us alone for good."

Donilon says the cardinal, like parishioners, is awaiting a Vatican ruling before making a move regarding St. Frances.

"They obviously are very committed and concerned Catholics who certainly do celebrate their faith," he said. "We're going to continue to hope and pray they'll come with us . . . and help build up the entire archdiocese after some tough years."

But the parishioners say their parish is actually growing, with new vigilers. "God takes care of us," says Maryellen Rogers. "Whatever happens at the end of this journey, it was meant to be."

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