Here’s the storybook ending. Today Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, stuns all, backs down, and lets parishioners of St. Frances X. Cabrini Parish in Scituate, Mass., keep the church he’s shut down and wants to unload — but which parishioners have battled to keep open.
For 11 years.
Seven days a week.
Through snow, rain, hurricanes, blizzards, power outages, and sweltering summer heat. They’re making sure someone from the archdiocese can’t sneak in again, as someone did before, change the locks, and take their church.
So St. Frances’ quiet rebels take turns on watch. They read, knit, recite the Rosary as they walk the sanctuary. Some eat pizzas with the kids on weekend overnights. They sleep on air mattresses and cots in makeshift bedrooms off an altar where donated green plants, now nearly trees, soak up sun through immense, glorious, stained glass windows. And every Sunday they do a Communion service with lay leaders and hosts donated by sympathetic, anonymous priests. Upfront priests could get in trouble.
Okay, let’s imagine for a second the warm, fuzzy feelings an O’Malley surrender could engender here at ground zero of the American sex abuse crisis, one aided and abetted and covered up by O’Malley’s predecessor, Bernard Law. Thousands of disgusted Boston-area Catholics abandoned their churches then, if not their faith. And in 2004 the cash-strapped archdiocese, facing massive legal bills, began shutting down and selling parishes, even thriving ones like St. Frances. Most closed without a fight. St. Frances, alone among them, fights on. And St. Frances just happens to sit on 30 acres of golden real estate, practically on top of the Atlantic Ocean in a gorgeous, seaside, affluent town.
Imagine, for that same second, if O’Malley, in the spirit of Pope Francis, ignored his lawyers and his bankers and said, “Okay, all right. They’ve earned it. Let ’em keep the damn church.” Imagine. That could change everything.
Now let’s imagine, instead, how battered Catholics around here would feel watching St. Frances bulldozed to make room for two-bedroom, two-bath condos, with ocean views, on the market for millions.
Let’s haul in the clichéd question here: “”What would Jesus do?”
Well, here’s what the good Catholics of St. Frances are doing today. Around 8:30 this morning they’re expected to board a train to Boston, walk to a courthouse in Pemberton Square, and pray for an appellate court miracle — or at least a chance to vigil on until every last court appeal has been exhausted.
Christine Arnold, 49, is a public school teacher who’s been in vigil for all 11 years with her triplet boys in tow. They’ll turn 17 this August. “We’d be ecstatic” just to get to stay, she said, admittedly not expecting much. “We’re vigiling, but we’re not vigilantes. We have tried to be really prayerful and respectful. We try to live our faith. But we’re not being met by the leaders of our Church. It’s disheartening,” she said.
You know most major institutions in 2015 — especially ones who’ve goofed up big-time — understand the value of reparative public relations, well-meaning public gestures, apologies, amends, showing appropriate respect and concern. Somehow the Catholic Church continues to miss this. Or maybe it does not care, despite a politically savvy pope. What’s particularly harsh about the St. Frances tale is that O’Malley, while he has met with parishioners off-site, has not once stepped foot in this pretty, brick, A-frame building to witness the devotion of his flock, many of them white-haired and completely devout. What he’d see is how they dust off the statues and vacuum the rugs, run a lending library, serve coffee and pastries, and offer, unlike many other churches, an unlocked door (at least until bedtime) to anyone who’s struggling or lonely or just wants to stop by to pray or chat.
And although “ongoing legal proceedings” would not prohibit an O’Malley pastoral visit anytime between 2004 and now, O’Malley’s spokesman yesterday, citing “ongoing legal proceedings,” declined to comment on his non-visit. Or the vigil, period.
But parishioners at last Sunday’s Communion service said they’ve grown accustomed to archdiocesan rejection. Several said they love their faith more than ever, but reject the hierarchy right back. Parishioners also spoke of checks their parents or they themselves wrote back in the 1960s to build St. Frances, of the family baptisms, weddings, First Communions and funerals celebrated here. But their crusade is not about a building, they insisted. “It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong,” said vigil leader Jon Rogers, a financial planner. “We have to stand up and say, ‘Enough. You don’t get to hurt children and then steal our church to pay for the crimes of your past.’ ”
Last Sunday a flutist played hymns. A lay leader asked a group of 40-or-so faithful to “pray for positive results regarding our court case on Wednesday.” Laywomen handed out the smuggled hosts. Rogers urged hope: Nobody thought the Red Sox could come back from three down to beat the Yankees for the American League Championship in 2004, the year St. Frances was “suppressed,” to use Church lingo. Parishioner Terry McDonough said he left the official priesthood to marry, but still calls himself a priest and marries Catholics banned from marrying in their own Church. He and his wife Susan drove an hour from Osterville to Scituate Sunday, and an hour back home. He does the same most Sundays, he said, to support the loving, welcoming faith community at St. Frances. “We think what the cardinal is doing is wrong.”
“What would Jesus do?” another woman asked me. Then she answered herself. Look around St. Frances X. Cabrini, she told me. “He’d do what these people are doing here.”