Boston Catholics Learn a Few Lessons
Some Sit-Ins to Thwart Parish Closings Have Led Archbishop to Reverse Decisions

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2005; A03

BOSTON -- Lessons of 11 months of sanctuary sit-ins: The altar boys' room makes an excellent office. A confessional booth can be turned into a spacious linen closet. It is not comfortable to sleep on a pew.

And now, an especially surprising lesson. The leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston -- which once dominated the moral and political life of this heavily Catholic city -- will reverse themselves, if you are willing to sit still long enough to make them.

Since last spring, three churches slated for closing and occupied by protesting parishioners have won reprieves. Another was spared by the archdiocesan leadership after its members threatened to hire a married priest.

All showed a kind of defiance that would have been unheard-of here a decade ago, before the sex abuse scandal rocked the church and empowered the laity. Now, in the midst of a growing rebellion among lay Catholics, many say they are determined to end the days when the church could expect them to "pay, pray and obey."

"We've learned to say 'No' to bishops here in Boston," said Jim Post, a Boston University business school professor and president of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay people who united because of their anger at bishops who attempted to cover up allegations of sexual abuse against priests.

The Catholic Church's power here dates back at least a century, when a wave of Irish and Italian immigrants took political power from the Yankee heirs of the Puritans.

Over the decades, church-state relations became so cozy that Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin said his office now has on record just two documents on the church's massive wealth and operations here: The first is a decree from the Pope, naming the archbishop of Boston to his post, and the second is a notice that the post has been accepted, Galvin said during a legislative hearing here last week.

But a new attitude was on display last week, as Massachusetts legislators considered a bill that would force the church to provide more financial information to the state.

The bill's supporters criticized the archdiocese for how it conducted itself as the scandal became public, and the audience at the hearing broke into applause or laughter with each jab at the church.

"The crisis of the church in Boston is not about sex abuse anymore," said James O'Toole, a history professor at Boston College who has written about the history of the Boston church. "It's about a collapse of institutional authority."

Now, that has been vividly seen in the response to scheduled parish closings.

In December 2003, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley announced a series of closings. He cited changing demographics, not financial constraints from the $85 million settlement with abuse victims. In all, he decreed that 83 of the archdiocese's 357 parishes were to be shuttered.

It was not the best timing. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, O'Malley's cabinet secretary for social services, said that the church had eroded trust among Catholics during the sex abuse scandal -- and then asked them to trust that it was doing the right thing by closing churches.

"Closing a military base is a piece of cake compared to closing a parish," Hehir said. "Nobody gets buried in a military base."

O'Malley had not been archbishop at the height of the scandal. He replaced the imperious Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned during the backlash from many parishioners, and O'Malley quickly won praise from victims' advocates for his responsiveness. Still, the laity had a different view of the hierarchy after the scandal, and when O'Malley announced the parish closings, there was a new willingness from people in the pews to push back.

The sit-ins, referred to here as "vigils," began in late August, when a few parishioners at St. Albert the Great in the suburb of Weymouth got up at the end of an evening Mass and said they were staying.

Soon after that in the run-down neighborhood East Boston, Gina Scalcione and a friend were making their last visit to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a church crowded with decades-old Italian statues of saints. Scalcione, 64, made a snap decision.

"You're staying. I'm staying," she remembered telling the friend. "But it's not just for a night."

In all, there were vigils in nine churches. As they went on for weeks and then months, the occupiers dealt with mundane problems such as plumbing and boilers, and also handled touchier religious issues that came with running both a protest and a parish.

The problem of supplying consecrated communion wafers was solved by Peter Borre, leader of an umbrella group representing the occupied parishes. He finds sympathetic priests to consecrate the wafers secretly, then delivers the wafers to occupied churches on Saturdays, Borre said.

Then there was the issue of a married priest. One church, Star of the Sea in Squantum, Mass., had threatened to use a referral service at www.rentapriest.com to hire one, and soon afterward the archdiocese reversed plans to close the church.

Borre said he tried to get another church in Everett, Mass., to use the same tactic -- only to find that churchgoers who were perfectly willing to stick it to the archbishop on some issues were still very traditional on this one.

"They looked at me as being evil," he said.

This spring, parishioners involved in the church vigils got what they counted as their first major success: The archbishop said he would reverse his decision to close St. Albert the Great, home to the original sit-in.

In recent weeks, two other occupied churches have also gotten reprieves from closing, though on the condition that they function as "chapels," with fewer official activities than before.

These successes have caused leaders of Catholic dissent groups in Boston to think of themselves as political revolutionaries, beginning a challenge to the authority of church leaders that might catch on elsewhere. Post, of Voice of the Faithful, said he considers the first church vigil to have been an "ecclesiastical Boston Tea Party."

In the meantime, one of the spared churches -- St. Anselm in Sudbury, Mass. -- is still being occupied even after the archdiocese agreed to make it a chapel. The leaders of the sit-in say they want more assurances.

"Do we trust these people?" Bill Bannon, a St. Anselm's parishioner, said in the church's darkened sanctuary one day last week. "How can you?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company