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Parishioners of St. Frances Cabrini seek control of church property

By Kaitlin Keane | The Patriot Ledger | Feb 28, 2008

SCITUATE — Their churches were closed by the Boston Archdiocese more than three years ago, but parishioners believe the churches and their assets should belong to them.

More than 60 parishioners from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate and St. Jeremiah Church in Framingham packed a courtroom at the state appeals court in Boston Wednesday as lawyers again argued that church assets should belong to parishioners, not the archdiocese.

In January 2007, a Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by parishioners against Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Parishioners appealed the decision.

“We built and paid for our parish and it should be returned to us,” said Maryellen Rogers, a parishioner at St. Frances, which was established in 1960.

Parishioners at St. Frances and four other closed churches filed civil suits claiming that they – not the archdiocese – should be declared the owners of their churches.

St. Frances was one of 67 churches the archdiocese ordered closed in 2004 as part of a cost-cutting reconfiguration. It is one of five where parishioners are holding vigils to keep the doors from being shut permanently.

The St. Frances property, including the rectory and the parish center, is assessed at $4.5 million.

Parishioners present for the argument Wednesday said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the court’s decision, which will not be released for several months.

“At this point anything can happen,” said Jon Rogers, a parishioner and leader of the group holding vigil in the church. “I think right is on our side, but whether the law is remains to be seen.”

John Galvin, the attorney representing the parishioners, said they are asking the court to rule on the secular responsibilities of the archbishop.

The issue of what happens to a church’s assets after it is closed is a fairly new question to face the courts, Galvin said.

“For the better part of 100 years, churches were growing and adding,” he said. “No one was thinking about what would happen if your church wasn’t there some day.”

“We are asking the court to decide, when this happens, what becomes of the church assets?” Galvin said.

For St. Frances, those assets include the church building, 30.3 acres of coastal property, funds in parish accounts, and other items that were gifts and donations from parishioners.

Parishioners also argue that there is a major inconsistency regarding the ownership of parish assets between dioceses on the West and East coasts.

In several bankruptcy filings by dioceses on the West coast, church officials have claimed they do not control parish assets. But Cardinal O’Malley has claimed the right to the property of local parishes since closings began in 2004.

In addition to the suit before the appeals court, parishioners have appealed the closing of the church through church channels. Parishioners of St. Frances are waiting to hear whether the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church, will hear their case.

An appeal filed with the Vatican by St. Jeanne d’Arc in Lowell was rejected in a decision released this week.

Kaitlin Keane can be reached at kkeane@ledger.com.