This May Be Rogue Parishioners' Last Easter In Closed Church | Texas Public Radio

This May Be Rogue Parishioners' Last Easter In Closed Church

Apr 20, 2014

Nearly a decade has passed since the doors of the Saint Frances Cabrini Catholic Church were shut and its holy water dried up.

With the Archdiocese of Boston strapped for cash, it was one of dozens of churches in the area to be closed and sold off. At the time, the archdiocese was in the throes of the clergy sex abuse crisis. It had agreed to pay nearly $85 million to more than 500 people who said they were abused by priests.

The closing of the church took parishioners in Scituate, Mass., about 30 miles south of Boston, by surprise. The locks were changed in the middle of the night, but a side door of the church had not been properly closed.

That's when parishioners decided to take back "their" church. They sneaked in.

Since October, 2004, followers have continuously occupied the building. Turns are taken sleeping in the church as part of their 24-hour, seven-day-a-week vigil. They've kept the candles lit, the heat on and the lawn mowed. With no priests, parishioners hold services themselves.

"For the last 50 years, every priest from the pulpit has told us this is our church," parishioner Jon Rogers tells NPR's Rachel Martin in an interview. "It was our church up until the time they said now we need to liquidate their asset, to basically pay for the horrific crimes of sexual abuse."

Despite the financial crisis, Rogers says the Catholic Church can't just tell them to get out. The church was built on land given by the community and built with their donations.

"Well, guess what?" Rogers asks. "We are not going to give it up. We truly believe it is ours."

The Archdiocese of Boston does not see it that way. It has stood its ground, patiently outwaiting nearly all of the churches that initially refused to close. Nearly 10 years on, worshipers in this seaside town are the last holdouts.

A resolution, however, could be imminent. The parishioners' appeals have worked their way through the Church's legal system. The Vatican's highest court is set to rule this spring.

If the decision does not go their way, this might be the last Easter celebrated in this church.

That would be a huge shame, Rogers says. With its service and the Easter egg hunt, it's the most exciting day of the year. The entire parish gathers, he says, with upwards of 800 people attending.

Even if the Vatican decides against them, it's not entirely clear the protestors would give up their church. "We bought, paid for it, and today maintain it," says Rogers. "So we're keeping it."

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And on this Easter morning, a Catholic Church outside Boston may be holding its final Easter mass. Nearly 10 years ago, the Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, told St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church that it had to close its doors along with dozens of others in the area. At the time, Boston was in the throes of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, which resulted in a nearly $85 million settlement to some 550 people who said they'd been abused by priests in the archdiocese.

Parishioners at this church say it's being sold to help defray the cost of that settlement. The Archdiocese cites other things - falling attendance, shifting demographics, lack of priests, and the deterioration of the buildings. I visited St. Frances Cabrini in Scituate, Mass. about seven years ago. Parishioners were taking turns sleeping on the church floor in a 24-hour vigil to keep it open. There were no priests so they were holding services themselves.

And that is how is it has been for years. I spoke with longtime parishioner Jon Rogers again yesterday, and he told me St. Frances is now waiting for the Vatican to render a final decision on his church's future.

JON ROGERS: We're anticipating a May ruling from the Vatican's highest court. After 10 years, it would be nice to basically get a resolve to this. Because we're not going to leave our church, the one that we bought, paid for, and today work hard to maintain, I think we find ourselves in a situation where the Archdiocese of Boston will have no other recourse but to come and sit down in front of us, face-to-face, and hammer out a resolve for this. And that's what we've been praying for from day one.

MARTIN: What's the importance of this building, though? Because a religious community, a spiritual community, I think there's even Scripture that says when there are just a few people gathered together in prayer, that that's enough, that there doesn't need to be a specific structure to hold that kind of sanctimony.

ROGERS: You know, I couldn't agree with you more. But literally, the facts remain that it was the people of this parish that donated the land. It was the people of this parish that came up with the funding to construct this. It was people of this parish that actually helped work on this church. And yeah, I understand the Scriptures, I truly do. But this is our spiritual home. It sits in the center of our community. And it is the gathering point from which we all take strength.

MARTIN: Can you tell us what Easter service is going to be like at your church?

ROGERS: It - well, it's the most exciting service of the year, and this will be a packed house. And it is our way to show the world that we are still a Christian community and will remain so as long as we stay together. But this is the day that the whole parish gathers as a group, followed by an Easter egg hunt, which is, you know, it's a blast. The kids have a blast and just everybody dressed up, and it really is the most exciting of all the services throughout the year.

MARTIN: Jon Rogers. He's a parishioner of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Scituate, Mass. Thanks so much for talking with us, John. Happy Easter.

ROGERS: Happy Easter to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.