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Archdiocese sues town over property tax assessments

By Ryan Bray Wed Oct 31, 2007 | The Scituate Mariner

Bobbie Sullivan and Sean Arnold, 8, make lavender wands yesterday outside St. Francis X. Cabrini church in Scituate.
Christian Arnold, 9, of Scituate writes, "Go Sox!" on the new quilt marking the third anniversary of the St. Frances vigil. Photo by Robin Chan.

Scituate - It has been more than three years since an official Sunday Mass has been held at St. Frances of Cabrini in North Scituate, but according to a lawsuit filed against the town by the Archdiocese of Boston, it is still a holy building.

The suit, filed in both the state Appellate Tax Court and Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston on Oct. 15, seeks to recoup property taxes paid by the Archdiocese on the St. Frances property since July 1, 2006. Brian Sullivan, Timothy O’Brien and Alfred Avila, members of the Scituate Board of Assessors, were each identified individually as defendants in the suit, as were Town Clerk Bernice Brown and Town Treasurer Jane Lepardo.

St. Frances has not held a recognized Sunday Mass since October 2004, when Archbishop Sean O’Malley decided to close its doors as part of a widespread parish reconfiguration beginning in January 2004. A statement released by the Archdiocese cited issues of declining membership and clergy, changing demographics and financial struggles facing the Archdiocese as the reasons behind the reconfiguration. St. Frances was one of 70 churches statewide closed by the Archdiocese in 2004.

Although the church is closed, the lawsuit claims that under Canon Law, the church is exempt from being taxed by the town so long as the building does not take on an alternate use apart from its religious origin.

The Archdiocese identifies seven parcels of land on the 25-acre site as part of the suit, including the church and parish center on Hood Road, the parish rectory and two church parking lots on Mann Hill Road and three parcels of open space on Hatherly Road owned by the Archdiocese. Stephen Jarzembowski, Scituate’s director of assessing, said the town first began assessing taxes on the St. Frances property at the beginning of fiscal year 2006. He said the property is assessed at $36,000 a year.

Archdiocese of Boston spokesman Terry Donilon said a fixed dollar amount has not been attached to the suit, but that the suit is more about defending the Archdiocese’s right to maintain the building as a tax-exempt entity.

“It’s less about the money and more about the fact that (the town of Scituate) is ignoring the law,” Donilon said.

The suit has raised the ire of both town officials and residents, namely parishioners at St. Frances who have been holding vigil inside the church in protest of its closing by the Archdiocese. Parishioners have taken turns day and night guarding the inside of the church and holding lay-led prayer services each Sunday. Last Friday marked parishioners’ third anniversary in vigil.

Parishioner Jon Rogers accused the Archdiocese of playing both sides of the issue, closing the church’s doors while at the same time claiming it as a holy building to avoid paying property taxes assessed by the town.

“We’re either a church or we’re not, and if we are, give us a priest so we can host Mass on Sunday,” Rogers said.

Selectmen also made note of the suit last week. Selectman Paul Reidy shared similar concerns with what he saw as the Archdiocese’s flip-flopping on its position regarding the status of the church.

“To me, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

While the suit filed against the town acknowledges the closing of St. Frances effective Oct. 29, 2004, it states that while not a functioning church, the church and its associated buildings are property of the Archdiocese and are therefore still considered religious buildings.

“It’s unfortunate that the town has immersed itself in this issue,” Donilon said of the town’s assessing the St. Frances property. “It seems as though they’re meddling.”

Selectman Joe Norton also spoke against the suit, saying that the suit isn’t only against select town officials, but against every taxpayer in Scituate.

“People need to realize that when they sue the town, they’re suing you,” Norton said.