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Opponents of parish closings see opportunity

Will raise issue, combine forces during papal visit

By John C. Drake | Globe Staff | April 14, 2008

Foes of Boston and Springfield area church closures gathered for a press conference to raise their profile yesterday at St. James the Great parish in Wellesley. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

WELLESLEY - Kathleen Daly said she appreciates the historic nature of this week's visit to the United States by Pope Benedict XVI, but she is not looking forward to the occasion with the fondness she felt during a visit by Pope John Paul II.

Daly is among a group of area Catholics who will observe this visit in the context of a battle with local church leadership over the preservation of their parishes.

"I don't feel the warmth," Daly said yesterday while sitting in a pew at St. James the Great in Wellesley, after leaders of protests at that occupied parish and several others in the region called on the pope to take up their cause during his visit.

"What has happened in the last 3 1/2 years has certainly colored my view" of Catholic church leadership, Daly said.

Citing declining membership and finances, among other concerns, church leaders have sought to close many churches in recent years. Even without the support of the larger church, some parishes have refused to shut down.

Hoping to seize on attention to the pope's visit to Washington and New York this week, some members of area parishes that have been closed or marked for closure by the Archdiocese of Boston and the Springfield diocese addressed reporters yesterday at St. James the Great, which has fought a closure order since October 2004.

The event was attended by leaders of protests from two other parishes the Boston Archdiocese has attempted to close, St. Jeremiah's in Framingham and St. Francis X Cabrini in Scituate. Also present were a representative of Holy Trinity (German) Church in the South End, which is slated to close; and representatives of two closed parishes which are not being occupied, St. Michael the Archangel in Lynn, and St. Francis Chapel in Lee, which was part of the Springfield diocese.

The event coincided with a press conference in New York at which organizers announced the formation of a national support group of Catholics opposed to the church closings.

Organizers said the national Coalition of Parishes, formed by disaffected Catholics in the Boston area; New York; Camden, N.J.; and New Orleans, will offer support and advice on navigating legal challenges to parish closures. Boston-area opponents to parish closings, who refer to themselves as vigilers because some groups have occupied their parishes for more than three years, "have invaluable experience in these matters," said Suzanne Hurley, a leader of the vigil at St. James the Great.

Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon called for unity among Catholics in anticipation of the pontiff's visit, tying the protesters' pleas to Pope Benedict's theme for his visit, hope.

"We are not surprised that many people have many hopes that they want to share with the Holy Father," Donilon said in an e-mail. "We see this as a time for Catholics in our Archdiocese and throughout the country to come together to listen to and to pray for and support the Holy Father."

At the press conference, some of the speakers appealed directly to Benedict. While the Vatican has indicated the pope will address the clergy sexual abuse crisis, protesters said they do not expect him to mention parish closings.

"It is our hope that he will address the failure of Catholic hierarchy with more clarity and compassion than has been shown so far," Hurley said. "It is time for him to put an end to the closing processes currently underway, reopen the churches in vigil, and enable laity to be a part of the solution."

John W. Salisbury, a member of Holy Trinity (German) Church, offered a two-part message to Benedict. He said he hopes the pontiff lives a long life and has a prosperous tenure.

"And the second message is, 'Help.' "