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The Faithful Stand Guard Over Church Near Boston

Round-the-Clock Vigil Defies Orders To Shutter Building

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A03

WEYMOUTH, Mass., Sept. 9 -- For a church that was supposed to close its doors forever last week, St. Albert the Great parish was a hub of activity Thursday, as members of the congregation lingered after morning services, drinking coffee in a downstairs reception hall or chatting in pews.

Many of them are not planning to go anywhere soon.

Sheila Pecoraro cheers on fellow St. Albert the Great parishioners as they leave to challenge the Boston Archdiocese. (Steven Senne -- AP)

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For 11 days, parishioners have conducted an around-the-clock prayer vigil -- volunteering for shifts and sleeping in pews -- that has prevented church officials from shuttering the building. The number of participants has ranged from a few to as many as several dozen.

St. Albert the Great, established in 1950, is one of 18 Boston area churches that had been designated for closure as of Sept. 1. A reconfiguration announced by the city's Catholic archdiocese last year will close 82 of 357 parishes by December.

But parishioners have sued to keep the church open, saying they own the property, with the archdiocese "serving merely as a trustee." They have also appealed to the Vatican.

"We have the commitment of the young and the old, mornings, evenings and weekends, because everybody believes so strongly this is an injustice," said Mary Akoury, 67, who helped organize the vigil. She is one of the plaintiffs in the case heard Wednesday in a Boston court. "They are destroying a very vibrant parish, and we can't get a suitable explanation for it."

Church officials point to dwindling finances, shifting demographics, a shortage of priests and declining attendance at Mass to justify parish closings. But worshipers here say that those criteria do not apply to St. Albert the Great. In the past couple of years, the church has erased tens of thousands of dollars in debt and doubled Mass attendance to 1,300 people per week.

The parish was selected to close because the community could no longer support five Roman Catholic churches in close proximity and because it did not have a school or other facilities attached to it, said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese.

"We'd like people to see there are legitimate reasons why this has to happen. We don't want it to escalate. Christians don't throw other Christians out of church," said Coyne, who said Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley hoped to avoid a confrontation with parishioners.

But Coyne said that church leaders cannot accommodate St. Albert the Great's parishioners. "If we made some kind of compromise it would be read by parishioners elsewhere as, all you need to do is occupy the church and they'll give in," he said.

The church closings have been unsettling for many Catholics in a region still reeling from the clergy abuse scandal that began here more than two years ago, though archdiocesan officials say that the need for a reconfiguration is unrelated.

At least a dozen parishes marked for closure are fighting back, employing a range of strategies. In part because of the publicity it has generated, the sleep-in at St. Albert the Great, an orange and tan brick building on a busy street, has become a symbol of the resistance.

Inside the church, there are few signs that something is amiss. Tissue boxes still sit in each row of pews, a remnant of the last official Mass on Aug. 29, when many parishioners said they and their pastor, the Rev. Ronald Coyne (not related to the archdiocesan spokesman), left the church in tears.

A poster lists media outlets for parishioners to call if church officials come to change the locks.

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