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VIGIL ENTERS 1,000TH DAY - Keeping the faith at St. Frances

By CLARA LONG | The Patriot Ledger | July 21, 2007

A parishioner holding vigil at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church works on a puzzle. (GARY HIGGINS/The Patriot Ledger)

SCITUATE - An unfinished jigsaw puzzle lies in the muted light of the church’s wall-size stained glass, only the straight edges of its 750 pieces in place. By the placement of the chairs nearby, it’s easy to imagine the long hours puzzlers may have already spent over it.

At the St. Frances X. Cabrini Church, parishioners have had plenty of time for such pursuits; they are approaching the 1000th day of an around-the-clock vigil to protest the closing of their church. The Boston Archdiocese ordered it closed in 2004.

After all that time - exactly as long as President John F. Kennedy was in office and one day shorter than the fictional Scheherazade told tales in Arabian Nights - parishioners report that the sit-in has become the comfortable routine of their religious community.

‘‘I have found my church,’’ said Jon Rogers, one of the original organizers of the prayer vigil after St. Frances emerged among 67 churches ordered closed by the archdiocese as part of a cost cutting reconfiguration.

‘‘What I’ve realized after nearly three years of doing this, is this is a church for the people about the people and not for the benefit of the Archdiocese of Boston,’’ he said.

‘‘Personally, I would not trade in one of 1,440,000 minutes,’’ said Maryellen Rogers, Jon’s wife, who has also organized the vigil since its inception. ‘‘It has been a privilege being with these amazing Catholics who are truly living their faith.’’

In the light breeze of a recent overcast afternoon, Marsha Devir sat with her summer reading in a lawn chair outside the church’s red double doors.

A pre-school teacher in the Scituate school district, she holds vigil two nights a week during the school year and whenever she’s needed during the summer.

She said the time at the church gives her a needed break to balance a checkbook or make a grocery list and also time for prayer and reflection.

‘‘If you told me three years ago that I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you,’’ she said. ‘‘But I think in that time I’ve become more faithful.’’

Parishioners plan to celebrate the 1000th day, which falls on Monday, with a Sunday communion prayer service and picnic. Although no priest has celebrated Mass in the church since it closed, a sympathetic - and anonymous - clergyman blesses the sacrament each week for St. Frances’ worshipers. One of the parishioners, Marian MacIsaac, leads each Sunday’s service.

As the days have added up, so have the daily sign-up sheets posted on a magnetic bulletin board at the church’s entrance. If the occupants are ever asked to leave, postings dictate an emergency plan: congregate at the church, call the media.
But after nearly three years, no one really expects the archdiocese to take abrupt action. An appeal under canon law to assign ownership of the church to the parishioners is held up in the Apostolic Signatura, roughly analogous to the Supreme Court in the Vatican.

‘‘A decision is imminent,’’ said Rogers. ‘‘But that could mean an hour from now or in six months.’’ After the 2004 reconfiguration, nine congregations in the Boston Archdiocese set up vigils to stop Archbishop Sean O’Malley from closing them.

Now, that number has dwindled to five, some vigil-keepers accepted agreements to move to other parishes, others - like St. Albert’s in Weymouth - convinced church officials to reactivate their parish.

St. Frances sits on a 30-acre property, including the church, the rectory, and the parish center, that is assessed at $4.5 million. Parishioners say the Boston Archdiocese is particularly deaf to their pleas to reopen the parish because the oceanfront land is so valuable.

‘‘We are the only vigil-ing church that has asked for a priest to occasionally celebrate Mass and has not been given permission,’’ said Margie O’Brien, who has been worshiping at St. Frances since it opened in 1962.

At present, the parishioners seem to have no urgent need for the Archdiocese to acquiesce to their appeals.

‘‘I personally have had it with them,’’ said Jon Rogers, referring to the Boston Archdiocese.

Rogers said he sees the congregations holding vigil as the model for a future more lay-led Catholic Church. ‘‘Our whole philosophy is change the management, keep your faith.’’

‘‘This vigil has certainly solidified my faith in God,’’ said O’Brien.

‘‘It’s eroded my faith in the hierarchy of this church.’’

Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger