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Outrage helps sustain vigil

Outrage helps sustain vigil
By Bella English | July 10, 2005

SCITUATE -- As you turn onto the road to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, there's a sign that says, ''Daily Rosary, 9:30 and 7:30." Posters around town announce the parish's summer bazaar. In its foyer is a basket for food pantry donations, another one for a sick parishioner, and yet another for a raffle. A table near the front entryway groans under the weight of quilts, scarves, hats, belts, purses, pins, magnets, and hand-painted pots crafted by parishioners. A field trip to Six Flags amusement park is planned for next month.

You would never know that St. Frances has been closed for nearly nine months, that the Archdiocese of Boston no longer recognizes it as a parish. The church was to close last fall under an archdiocese reconfiguration plan, but on Oct. 29, following the lead of another South Shore church -- St. Albert the Great in Weymouth -- parishioners began a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week vigil to protest what they say is an unfair and unwise act. Last week, lawyers representing St. Frances parishioners filed a civil lawsuit against the archdiocese, partly on the grounds that they -- not the archbishop -- own the church property.

The reconfiguration plan has been plagued by protests, including sit-ins at various churches, along with lawsuits and canon appeals to the Vatican, since it was announced in December 2003. An independent committee appointed by Archbishop Sean O'Malley has spent months reviewing its various closures, with the result that some churches have reopened and other closings have been put off indefinitely.

Then there are churches like St. Frances, which have gotten no such reprieve. The Meade-Eisner Committee recommended that it remain closed, and the archbishop agreed. Committee chairman Peter Meade said that the numbers at St. Frances do not justify reversing the decision. ''We looked at the number of people in a parish catchment area, the amount of money per capita contribution, confirmations. . . . Their numbers didn't jump off the page at you," he said.

But many people at St. Frances believe the decision is all about a different kind of number. A sign taped to a wall at the church's entrance says: ''St. Frances Cabrini: Betrayed! 30 pieces of silver. 30 acres of land."

That's what parishioners say is at play here: a land grab. Jon Rogers, who along with his wife, Maryellen, has been leading the vigil, picked up an aerial photograph of the church and its grounds. ''This," he said, ''is what it's all about." The photo shows the church, its rectory, parking lot, and parish hall nestled among estates and summer houses, a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.

''There's our church," he said, pointing. ''And there's the ocean. It's one of their crown jewels. We've crunched the numbers six ways to Sunday, and this is the only answer we can come up with."

George Kelly, a parishioner and local real estate agent, says land in the area goes for up to $500,000 an acre. Parishioners figure the St. Frances property is worth about $15 million. They point to a house on the corner that is on the market for $2.5 million, and others for $1 million or close to it.

''They can't say it's not about the money," said Rogers, a financial planner.

The archdiocese undertook the reconfiguration plan after citing a shortage of priests, decrepit buildings, low Mass attendance and collections. Officials have said repeatedly that the plan has nothing to do with the priest sex abuse scandal that rocked the archdiocese, which paid out millions of dollars in settlements to victims.

For months, the folks who have kept St. Frances going have tried to meet with O'Malley, but to no avail. They were visited by members of the Meade-Eisner Committee, and offered them what parishioners believe is a good proposal for both sides: sell 25 of the 30 acres, leaving the church, the parish center, and the parking lot. ''A no-brainer" is what Maryellen Rogers calls it.

Leaving a town of 20,000 with only one Catholic church is a mistake, parishioners say. According to development plans, more than 600 new units of housing are either slated, approved, or under construction. In addition, they say, when the Greenbush rail line is restored and running, there will be an influx of newcomers. Nearby Hingham, with the same population, has two churches, and Marshfield, with 25,000 residents, has three. Building permits rose from 700 to 900 in the past year, they said.

''This is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, one of the most desirable on the South Shore. We'll be looking at a population of 30,000 and one church to serve them," said Jon Rogers. ''And they want to bulldoze our church and put up luxury housing."

On a recent day, several parishioners were in the church getting things ready for yesterday's bazaar. If their church is closed, they don't seem to realize it. At Christmas, they had a gift program for poor children. They collected money for a tsunami relief fund. They made blankets for a women's shelter, and collected clothing and furniture for a teenage mother. On the altar is a dove tree, where special intentions are placed and remembered at the Sunday service, where the consecrated host is provided by a sympathetic priest. In early September, they will throw a fund-raiser cocktail party, live auction, and raffle.

''Here is a parish that has sustained itself for eight months," Rogers said. ''I think we've shown our commitment." The folks at St. Frances say they really don't need a full-time pastor, if that's an issue with the archdiocese. They're used to running things quite nicely; for Masses, they say, they can get retired pastors who live in the area. Parishioners would pay them, supplementing their pensions. They believe that they own the church, that the archdiocese merely acts as ''the management company."

What it comes down to, say the people at St. Frances, is a fair solution for both sides. ''We're willing to let them take the lion's share of the land," said Jon Rogers. ''And then let everyone live happily ever after."

A spokesman for the archdiocese said no action will be taken until the canon appeals are settled in Rome. ''The archbishop has asked people to end their vigils peacefully and to transition to a welcoming parish," said Terrence Donilon. ''He's just hopeful that, at the end of the day, people will join him in that spiritual transition."

As for the parishioners, they say they will continue as a faith group even if they are evicted. ''We will rent other worship space," said Maryellen Rogers. Then she and the other women of the church were off to check on items for the bazaar.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at english@globe.com.

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