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THEY'RE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL: One-year anniversary approaches for parishioners of St. Frances Cabrini

By DIANA SCHOBERG | The Patriot Ledger | October 18, 2005

SCITUATE - The sign-up sheets in the vestibule tell the story. They are filled with the names of the faithful, and they mark the hours, days and months since a small cadre of St. Frances X. Cabrini parishioners began occupying the church to stop the Archdiocese of Boston from closing it.

As the one-year anniversary approaches next week, they’re still there.

Behind the stained glass windows, parishioners eat, sleep, laugh and pray. They pay bills, do crossword puzzles, and somehow, even as they battle the archdiocese, they grow closer to God and one another.

‘‘The closing - it’s truly like a death,’’ Margy O’Brien said Thursday night after the weekly prayer group that she leads. ‘‘They’re not going to take my faith away from me. I’ll never leave the Catholic Church.’’

St. Frances is one of nine churches in the Boston Archdiocese where parishioners set up round-the-clock vigils to stop Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s plans to close them.

The first church occupied by parishioners, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, was reopened by the archdiocese earlier this summer. Others were turned into chapels in response to parishioners’ protests.

Five churches besides St. Frances remain occupied.

The hours spent at the church day in and day out have helped some parishioners come to terms with their anger towards the archdiocese and grief over losing their church.

Doretta Martin worked 16 years as the religious education coordinator at St. Frances. After the closing was announced, it was five months before she was able to go back inside the church. It was too painful.

Even now, she peeks into the locked parish hall and sees the old classrooms, the abandoned books growing moldy in the hallway, and has to hold back the tears.

She said, however, the vigil has helped her make peace with the church’s fate. She walks the aisles of the church and prays her rosary. She vacuums and cleans, pouring her anguish into keeping her beloved church out of disrepair.

‘‘Whatever God’s going to do, He’s going to do,’’ she said. You can’t be angry and bitter. I was angry and bitter.’’

‘‘If it’s going to close, it’s going to be a long goodbye,’’ she said.

The occupation at St. Frances happened almost by accident. The vigil at St. Albert’s in Weymouth was well under way when it came time to close St. Frances. Parishioners at the Scituate church weren’t at all sure they wanted to follow the Weymouth church’s lead.

A meeting, organized by parishioners Jon and Maryellen Rogers, was scheduled to discuss a vigil, but the archdiocese changed the locks on the church before the meeting could be held. Then someone found a door had been left ajar. Parishioners walked in and the round-the-clock vigil began on Oct. 26, 8,600 hours, 358 days ago.

After nearly a year of silence, Archbishop O’Malley has agreed to meet with parishioners, but they are angry that it has taken him this long.

‘‘We have to understand he’s one person who we are asking a lot of,’’ archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said. ‘‘You can only do so much in 24 hours. He’s really pushed hard to wind down this reconfiguration process so that he can turn his attention to other areas that need attention.’’

In some ways, the archdiocese’s decision to close the church may have made St. Frances more of what a parish hopes to be.

While the church was open, many of the parishioners knew each other only casually.

Now, parishioners are not just fellows in faith; they are family.

Pat McCarthy stormed into the church on Thursday night when the prayer group was over with a report on two parishioners who were in the hospital. She asked O’Brien for help recommending a cardiologist. The two dragged out a phone book, threw on their reading glasses and looked entry by entry for a doctor whose name they recognized.

When they were done, they sat and chatted, about not-so-pressing matters like new face lotion and bathrobes. Religious music from a boom box on the alter wafted through the church and into the vestibule, the place where parishioners spend most of their time awake.

The handful who regularly stand guard in the church mark their shifts onto their calendars alongside notes about driving the kids to soccer or going to the gym.

Kim Brown, the mother of three young children, carried a stack of newspapers with her to a recent shift, a rare quiet moment to read.

Maryellen Rogers toted her laptop. Jane Radmond knitted a mitten. Heather Santosuosso, who named her dog Cabrini, stayed up late putting together one of the jigsaw puzzles now stored in the cabinet under the statue of Mother Cabrini.

Others clean the building or work on charitable projects. They say their time inside the closed church is no different than committing to any volunteer work.

‘‘It’s kind of like a routine,’’ Brown said. ‘‘You sign up, you do your time. You do your two hours.’’

The number of volunteers fluctuates, the product of vacations or sniffles. On Thursday, parishioners scrambled to cover four hours yet to be assigned that day. At their weekly lay-led service Sunday, O’Brien pleaded with the 40 or so parishioners in attendance for more help.

Parishioners have appealed the church’s closing to the Vatican and filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court to stop the archdiocese from selling the property.

The church, rectory, parish hall and 30 acres of property on which they sit are assessed at $4.45 million, and parishioners are convinced that the value of the seaside property played a big role in the archdiocese’s decision.

What’s next?

Parishioners are buying a water cooler and a new television and VCR. They’re hunkering down for the long haul and say they’ll appeal the archdiocese’s decision as far as it will go.

They will also pray.

‘‘We have a direct connection,’’ parishioner Hugh O’Connor said, pointing up toward heaven.

Diana Schoberg may be reached at dschoberg@ledger.com.

Copyright 2005 The Patriot Ledger