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Minus priests, parishioners lead services at 3 occupied churches

By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff | April 17, 2006

SCITUATE -- It was an Easter Sunday service at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini church in Scituate, and it was led almost entirely by women.

Standing in front of the altar, Bonnie Mayo and Patti Litz, longtime members of the seaside church, handed out wafers and wine. Marian MacIsaac, whose parents helped found the church four decades ago, raised her hands skyward and recited the Lord's Prayer. Karen Nawn-Fahey, who was married in the church 20 years ago, retold the story of Jesus's resurrection.

Denied a priest by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, this church turned instead to its longtime members -- teachers, financial executives, and retirees -- to celebrate one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was officially closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in October 2004, and is one of six churches that have been occupied around the clock in attempts to keep them open.

Yesterday marked another unusual milestone, tinged with joy and bitterness, as the occupation approaches 18 months. Members had asked O'Malley, as did members at several other occupied churches, to send them a priest for Easter, but he rejected those requests. It was a sign O'Malley might be losing patience with the restive churches, but members at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini said yesterday that they were proud of their service, led entirely by lay people. They were also proud of the turnout: about 200 people, young and old.

''It's incredibly powerful to be a part of this," said Nawn-Fahey, 52, with her son, Daniel, 14, in the church foyer after the service. ''Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, all extraordinarily committed. It's a tremendous faith experience."

Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to explain why O'Malley had rejected requests for priests, saying, ''The cardinal hopes and prays for a prayerful and spiritual resolution to all the vigils, and all the parishes that are feeling a sense of anxiety over reconfiguration."

Still, O'Malley's refusal to send a priest had some church members in Scituate fuming.

''Cardinal Sean, shame on you," scolded Linda Walsh, 56. ''Do the Christian thing. Let the people have a priest. Let my people go."

Members orchestrated a service that replicated some aspects of a traditional Mass while removing others that are performed by a priest. A priest sympathetic to parishioners' fight at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini had blessed the wafer and wine beforehand, rather than during the Easter service. Nawn-Fahey introduced her telling of the resurrection as a ''reading" instead of a Gospel. And MacIsaac delivered a ''reflection" instead of a homily. Her remarks focused on Mary Magdalene and other women who came to Jesus's aid.

''Perhaps this is the future of the church," said MacIsaac, 51, marveling at the way church members had guided the congregation through prayers and song.

Two other occupied churches that were refused priests -- Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston and St. James the Great in Wellesley -- held Easter services yesterday led by lay people, said Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, an alliance of people unhappy with church closings in Greater Boston. Members at St. Anselm in Sudbury and St. Jeremiah in Framingham have been receiving priests regularly from the archdiocese; priests said Masses at both churches yesterday. Parishioners at St. Therese in Everett did not request a priest. Feeling that it was important that they be able to celebrate a traditional Mass, members went to other churches, Borre said.

Donilon said O'Malley would be detailing a ''very broad and substantial message" on Wednesday intended to make the archdiocese's finances more transparent to the public, and to better address ''how we plan to take the archdiocese into the future."

The message comes as O'Malley has begun to form a new leadership team, appointing a former military chaplain, the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, as his second-in-command. Erickson fills a post that had been held by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, a former aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law who this month was named the next bishop of Cleveland.

''It's a very positive message that I think will have a profound impact on the future of the archdiocese," Donilon said of O'Malley's forthcoming address. ''We're looking forward it."

Yesterday in Scituate, the rituals of Easter occupied parishioners, rather than the workings of church leadership.

Children scampered on the lawn outside the church, searching for Easter eggs hidden in the bushes. Members sliced up egg-studded breads and snacked on chocolate.

During the service, they sang about hope and resurrection, and prayed for the sick.

Elise MacIsaac, 88, said she remembers her husband, Daniel, going door to door to raise money to build the church in the 1950s, as Scituate grew. Yesterday, she looked around the church foyer, teeming with children and adults, and said she felt nearly certain that St. Frances Xavier Cabrini would survive.

''I can't get over all those kids that are here," she said. ''It's marvelous that they keep coming."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.