Massachusetts Church Fights For Survival
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. When a company decides to shut down, its employees usually leave. But what happens when a church closes? Reporter Jessica Alpert brings us this story of a Catholic congregation near Boston that's fighting to stay.
JESSICA ALPERT: The Church of St. Frances Cabrini is in the idyllic seaside town of Scituate, a suburb of Boston. The town known as the Irish Riviera, is home to John and Mary Ellen Rogers. They are the leaders of the Friends of St. Frances Cabrini, a group of parishioners fighting to keep their church open even though the Archdiocese of Boston wants to shut it down.
Mr. JOHN ROGERS (Leader, Friends of St. Frances Cabrini): The people of Catholic America are going to revolt. You know, they say that this is a revolution. This is a revolution. It's a revolution of faith.
ALPERT: Five years ago, John rarely visited St. Frances Cabrini more than once a week.
Mr. ROGERS: Now, I used to come in and spend an obligatory 45 minutes here, you know, and off I'd go, hoping to (unintelligible) usually, you know, off to do something fun for the rest of Sunday. Now, it really is part of our lives. We've learned to literally not only just read the word of God but to practice it.
ALPERT: The Archdiocese of Boston closed the church in 2004, citing economic strain and a dwindling congregation. But some people refused to leave and since then have taken turns keeping watch every hour of every day. St. Frances member Mary Ellen Rogers remembers how it all started.
Ms. MARY ELLEN ROGERS (Leader, Friends of St. Frances Cabrini): We were locked out of it prematurely. The Archdiocese had promised that they will keep the church open till October 29th. They locked the doors under the cover of darkness on October 25th, 2004, and on October 26th, we received a phone call that a choir room door was inadvertently left open, and that's how the vigil began.
(Soundbite of song "The Prayer")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I pray you'll be our eyes And watch us where we go…
ALPERT: Sunday services are held at 10 a.m. and 40 people are scattered across the pews. The congregation is sparse but those who attend - young children, teenagers, senior citizens - pray loudly. Lay people lead the service and pass out bread and wine consecrated by a sympathetic local priest. Mary Ellen Rogers insists the church of St. Frances Cabrini belongs to the people.
Ms. ROGERS: We built, paid for it, maintained it. We have always been preached from the altar, from the pulpit, this is your church. Your church needs a new roof, give us money. Your church needs a new organ, give us money.
ALPERT: But the Catholic Church doesn't work that way. The Archdiocese owns the buildings, not individual parishes. The Rogers believe the church wants to close St. Frances for the money. It's the second most valuable piece of property owned by the Archdiocese. It sits on 30 acres of prime real estate.
Mr. TERRENCE DONILIN (Spokesperson for the Archdiocese, Boston): It wasn't working anymore.
ALPERT: Terrence Donilin is the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Mr. DONILIN: The models that we implemented in the '50s, '60s and '70s don't work because we have fewer priests. We have fewer people going to mass.
Mr. ROGERS: They say they're running out of priests. We don't use priests, we use the laity. They say that they are fiscally unsound at this point. You know, that's not affecting us.
ALPERT: John Rogers explains that in order to keep their parish, the Friends of St. Frances even offered to buy back their church from the Archdiocese. Church Spokesperson Terrence Donilin says it won't happen.
Mr. DONILIN: We have a structure that's been in place for 2,000 years. You know, we're not interested in having a congregation structure, we don't parcel out property. It's not about money. It's not about buildings. It is about what is in the best interest of the wider Archdiocese of Boston and everybody who's a part of that family.
ALPERT: The people of St. Frances have appealed all the way to the Vatican. And while it's unlikely they'll win, John and Mary Ellen Rogers won't go quietly.
Mr. ROGERS: When we made a commitment to take this to the end, we weren't kidding. We're going to follow this to every avenue available to us, and that's a promise that we made to the people of this community and to all the vigiling churches that we will not go down without a fight.
Ms. ROGERS: We believe in our faith. We love our God. We're not changing our faith. We want to be Catholic. We want to change the management.
ALPERT: The Rogers called this vigil a joyous burden, a burden that's lasted nearly four and a half years. Yet the drama is far from over. John and Mary Ellen know their occupation of St. Frances could end anytime and badly. They point to New Orleans, there, the church sent in police to arrest the congregation keeping vigil. The Friends of St. Frances Cabrini hope for a better resolution. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Alpert in Boston.
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