Category: Archive

Heartbreak over church closings

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Sixty churches in the Boston Archdiocese will close, beginning this fall, based upon a reconfiguration process set in motion in January by Archbishop Sean O?Malley, who was installed as Boston?s sixth archbishop last July following the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
O?Malley, who was widely hailed for his quick resolution of more than 500 clergy sexual-abuse cases, is now coming under fire from many parishioners and some priests that their churches should remain open.
When the reconfiguration process began earlier this year, the Archdiocese gave four criteria for the closings: substantial shifts in population within certain sections of the city and a resultant decline in church attendance; a decline in the number of priests; financial challenges affecting a sizeable percentage of parishes, and the deteriorating condition of parish buildings.
But some priests say that other factors may be in play, and that their parishes were singled out for closing for other reasons under an umbrella of ?real estate or retaliation.?
Among the most vocal of the critics have been pastors Stephen Josoma Bowers of St. Susanna?s in Dedham and Robert Bowers of St. Catherine of Siena in Charlestown, both of whom have publicly suggested that the Archdiocese may be unhappy with them for their prior criticisms of Cardinal law and his mishandling of the sexual abuse scandal. Josoma has also suggested that the high real estate value of the St. Susanna parish buildings may be of interest to the church leaders.
In a letter to O?Malley last week, Josoma referred to his parish as ?healthy, vibrant financially solvent and growing.? And he told reporters after Mass Sunday that the closing criteria did not seem to apply to his parish. ?Why is a vibrant, suburban growing parish like this recommended for closing? It doesn?t make sense,? he said. Both he and Bowers are appealing O?Malley?s decision.
Josoma said that he did receive assurances from O?Malley last Thursday that the closing does not stem from his prior public criticism of church leadership or from any real estate considerations. O?Malley has offered to meet with St. Susanna parishioners in the coming weeks to explain the reasons for his decision.
In Charlestown, Fr. Bowers and many of his parishioners wiped away tears as he read from the pulpit his letter of appeal. ?The closing of this parish is a violation of my conscience,? he said after Mass. ?I don?t want to believe the archdiocese retaliates against priests.?
In his letter notifying Bowers of the closing, O?Malley cited a declining number of parishioners and St. Catherine?s close proximity to two other parishes in Charlestown.
St. Augustine?s Church in South Boston, which was built by Irish immigrants in the 19th century, is among the parishes slated to close. Its adjacent chapel was built in 1819, and its cemetery contains the graves of many who came to the U.S. during the Famine.
Eileen McCarthy came to this country from Belfast in 1968. She is now the parish secretary at St. Augustine?s. After Sunday?s 9 a.m. Mass, she said that she and most of the parishioners were devastated by the closing. ?We realize that this is a very old church in need of a lot of repair, but we are hoping to save it,? she said. ?When they closed St. Augustine?s School last year, we were hoping they?d use the money saved to make the church repairs.?
Ed Flynn, another parishioner at St. Augustine?s, said that he and his friends had been hoping and praying that his church would stay open. ?The parish has been the backbone of South Boston in terms of helping the elderly, the handicapped and the poor,? he said.
Surrounded by three public housing projects, St. Augustine?s has for a long time operated a food pantry and programs for the poor and elderly. ?These programs of reaching out to the needy is what the church is all about, and that?s why this closing is so tragic,? Flynn said.
McCarthy and Flynn fear that some day St. Augustine?s will be converted into luxury condominiums. ?That?s what happened to another church in South Boston some time ago, and I?d hate to drive by and see the same thing here,? McCarthy said.
Fr. Donald Abbot, parochial vicar at St. Augustine?s, said after Mass Sunday that his reaction to the closing is one of grief. He said that he and many of his parishioners have had sleepless nights since the announcement was made last week. ?I really can?t believe that they?re doing this,? he said. ?We hate to see such a beautiful and historic church go. People have been quite angry and in tears over this. So many of the elderly go a long way back with the church.?
Former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn spent much of his youth in various social and recreational programs at St. Augustine?s. Although he is a parishioner at nearby Gate of Heaven, which will remain open, he empathizes with those who will be uprooted by the reconfiguration.
?The archbishop was forced to make some very difficult and painful decisions, and we should support him,? he said. ?But the sadness and disappointment that the parishioners feel is very justified. So many people have lasting memories about their experience in that parish.?
Flynn himself has many friends and extended family members whose faith was shaped at St. Augustine?s and who were baptized, confirmed, wed or mourned in that parish.
In his press conference last Tuesday, Archbishop O?Malley said that 130 of Boston?s pastors are over 70 years of age, that one-third of parishes are in debt, and that city parishes are in need of about $100 million in repairs.
?The alternative to going through the exercise would be that we would experience a continued decline in some areas of our archdiocese, closing parish after parish, school after school outreach programs . . . all because the archdiocese would be unable to subsidize these entities,? he said.
C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said that it is important to put the church closings within a historical context. ?A lot of the city churches are within blocks of one another, and they were built in the pre-automobile days when everybody walked to Mass,? he said. ?The number of Catholics in this city and the money just isn?t there to sustain all these churches.?
Doyle also said that forced school busing has led to ?massive white flight? into the suburbs and the dissolution of Catholic ethnic neighborhoods. He said that the city of Boston has become increasingly more welcoming to practitioners of alternative lifestyles than to middle-class, church-going families.
?I feel bad for the archbishop because he?s in a no-win situation,? Doyle said of O?Malley. ?But maybe some good will come out of it.?
At last week?s press conference, O?Malley also held out hope that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. ?As one church is closed, another church is waiting to welcome its people to a place which can become more alive, more spirit-filled and more able to proclaim the good news of our faith because of the talents, treasure and time its new members will bring,? he said.
?Doors may be closing and lights may be extinguished in one church, but other doors are open and arms are extended in welcome in another church in which the light of faith will be all the brighter in renewal. Closing a parish does not mean an end to the book, just a chapter in the story of life and faith that is being written every day in our life as a church.?

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