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Posted May 27, 2004

65 parishes to be closed

News brings despair, relief
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff
May 26, 2004

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley announced yesterday that he is closing more than one-sixth of the parishes of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, engineering what he called "a radical reconfiguration" of the nation's fourth-largest Catholic diocese.

The 65 closings, occurring 28 months after the clergy sexual-abuse crisis plunged the regional and national church into the worst crisis in its history here, reignited anger and grief in many of the 144 heavily Catholic communities in Eastern Massachusetts. There was also relief among the parishioners whose churches will be spared and understanding from those who deem O'Malley's actions painful but necessary.

Numerous parishes targeted for closing held prayer vigils last night and scheduled meetings tonight or tomorrow night to decide whether they should fight the closing plan. Priests or parishioners can appeal the closing decisions, first to O'Malley and then to the Vatican, but such appeals have almost never succeeded in the past.

O'Malley said the closings are necessary because the Catholic population has been moving to the suburbs and because attendance at Mass is declining. Other reasons, he said, include financial problems, the poor state of repair of many parish buildings, and a dwindling number of priests. He said that more than one-third of all parishes are operating at a deficit and that 130 of the archdiocese's pastors are over 70.

"It is clear that our recent journey as an archdiocese has been along a difficult path," O'Malley said at a press conference at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. "My hope is that the major step we are taking together today will set us on firm ground so that we can focus our attention once more on our primary mission to preach the truth of our Catholic faith in both word and in deed."

The archdiocese will close the affected parishes in three waves, in two, four, and six months. Four parishes were given longer reprieves.

The 65 parish closings, including five church buildings the archdiocese will convert to chapels for weekly Sunday Masses, cap two decades of parish closings in the archdiocese. Up to yesterday, the archdiocese has trimmed the number of parishes from 404 to 357, since 1985. The changes announced yesterday will drop the number to 292, and O'Malley plans next month to announce another eight to 11 closings in Lawrence and Lowell to complete the reduction.

O'Malley said he made an effort to protect parishes that minister to the poor and recent immigrants, a priority that resulted in fewer closings than many expected in Boston, Brockton, and Lynn. But those cities were still hard hit. In Boston, O'Malley cut the number of parishes from 57 to 42.

The poor and immigrants were not completely spared. The archdiocese said that among the parishes to be closed are 18 with heavy concentrations of ethnic communities. One example is in Charlestown, where St. Catherine of Siena Church, which has a high number of Spanish-speaking parishioners and is the poorest parish in that neighborhood, is slated to close.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston expressed relief that the number of closings in his city was not larger; numerous storied parishes in Dorchester and South Boston, including St. Peter Church on Meetinghouse Hill and Gate of Heaven in South Boston, will be spared. Menino said he would seek to work with O'Malley to find new locations for various activities, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and afterschool programs, held in churches that will close.

"Truthfully, I thought it was going to be worse," Menino said. "We've got a lot of parishes and people who are going to be hurting and services that need to be made up, but I'm relieved it wasn't more."

The archdiocese has hired a real estate specialist to help sell off the property associated with the closing parishes, many of which own churches, rectories, convents, schools, other buildings, and, in some cases, open space. The archdiocese has not said how many properties it plans to sell, but it is sure to be significant.

"Rarely, if ever, has such a large group of dispersed properties become available at one time in our region," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Some parishioners talked of leaving the Catholic Church or cutting off contributions. And at a meeting last night at St. Peter Lithuanian Church in South Boston, about 150 parents voted by a show of hands to try to remove the parish school from the archdiocese's control and make it independent.

"I feel betrayed," said Patricia Gomez of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Concord, where both parishes are to combine into one. "I am sad and very angry. . . . I do not want to believe this has happened, nor do I want to believe it is a good thing for the Concord Catholic community."

Others accepted the closing decisions with resignation.

"We have to resign ourselves to the will of God," said the Rev. Daniel J. Crowley, pastor of St. James the Great Parish in Wellesley. "We have to think in terms of the things in life which are beyond our control."

Among the parishes closing are several with historic significance, including 19 built in the 19th century. In a year, the archdiocese will close Holy Trinity in the South End, a 160-year-old congregation that is thought to be the last German parish left in New England and that is home to the diocese's only Latin Mass.

O'Malley closed 13 of the 41 personal parishes designated to serve particular ethnic groups, but the archdiocese said that in only two of those parishes do people still worship in the designated language. He is closing three of the four surviving Lithuanian parishes in the archdiocese.

O'Malley said he had no choice but to close parishes. He said the alternative was a gradual reduction in schools, outreach programs, and subsidized parishes, and a risk to pension and medical funds for church employees.

"Please do not interpret reconfiguration as a defeat," he said. "It is rather a necessary reorganization for us to be positioned for the challenges of the future, so that the church can be present in every area of the archdiocese with the human and material resources we need to carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us."

O'Malley insisted that the closings are not directly related to the financial cost of settling sexual abuse lawsuits, costs he said the archdiocese has financed through the sale of a portion of its headquarters property in Brighton. He said the money raised by selling parish assets, all of which will be controlled by the archdiocese, will be used to support the surviving parishes and schools and to support pension and medical funds.

"Know that what we are doing today as an archdiocese is for the right end and for the right reasons," he said.

The archdiocese said the parishes closed were generally those that had low Mass attendance or low enrollment in religious education or simply were located too close to other parishes. In response to questions, church officials said they did not single out activist priests, although several parishes headed by outspoken pastors will close, including nine headed by priests who called for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign. By contrast, 22 parishes headed by priests who called for Law to resign will remain open.

The archdiocese protected most parishes with schools, but the closings will result in the shuttering of three schools, bringing to nine the total number of parochial schools closing this year. The archdiocese said it will close the parish schools of Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Brighton and St. Peter Church in South Boston, two parishes that are closing, and will create one parish school to replace the two schools of St. Margaret Parish and St. William Parish in Dorchester, which are merging.

The Catholic school superintendent, Sister Kathleen Carr, said the church can accommodate all displaced students in nearby parish schools.

Last week, the archdiocese decided to close, without public announcement, Immaculate Conception School in Everett.

Pastors were notified by Federal Express yesterday. Those in closing parishes received letters from O'Malley saying, "The challenge of closing a parish is difficult, yet I ask for your continued dedication and leadership throughout this process."

Pastors of surviving parishes received letters asking them to reach out to the priests who head those that are closing.

Stephen Kurkjian, Joanna Massey, Christine McConville, Kathy McCabe, Erica Noonan, and Suzanne Sataline of the Globe staff contributed to this report, along with Globe correspondents Bill Dedman and Kellyanne Mahoney. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.