SCITUATE, Mass. Five handmade quilts hang around the altar of St. Frances Cabrini church. Each one commemorates a year the former parishioners of this closed church have illegally occupied the building.
“They represent who we are,” says Maryellen Rogers. She and her husband Jon are two of the leaders of this vigil, as they call it. The couple organize more than 100 people in groups of two to stay in the church day and night. The changing of the guard happens every two hours.
They’ve been at this for more than 1,800 days, protesting the Boston Archdiocese’s decision to shut them down.
“I thought it would be done within the year,” Jon Rogers admits. He is as surprised as anyone that these vigils — in five different churches in Scituate, East Boston, Everett, Framingham and Wellesley — are still going on.
“I truly believe, and maybe to a naive point, that based upon right versus wrong this would be done,” Rogers says. “We would be granted what we wanted, which would be to reopen this church as a fully functioning parish, they would see the error of their ways and say, ‘Oh, boy, did we make a mistake.'”
But Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the Boston Archdiocese, has not admitted any mistake by closing St. Frances and more than 70 other churches to shore up the coffers of the church. Instead he is tolerating the occupations, by paying the churches’ heating, electricity and snow plowing. Last year it cost $600,000 for the upkeep.
Sister Marian Batho is the archdiocese’s liaison to the churches in vigils. She says it is important to keep the buildings in safe condition while the Vatican hears the appeals.
“We probably did not expect that it would be five years,” Batho says, “but Cardinal Sean made the commitment to do nothing, really, until the appeal process had been completed.”
People following the process closely await a ruling from the Vatican’s highest court, which could come as early as this spring. None of the churches expect the Vatican to rule in their favor.
Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, supports these vigils. Borre says they are protesting U.S. bishops who closed down viable parishes. He and others are sending a message that these bishops should not be trusted by the Vatican.
“We want to send a signal to Rome — and we’ve been successful in this — that all is not well in Catholic America and we’re clogging their review systems,” Borre says. “And this has come to the attention of the Pope.”
Even if Borre and others don’t win their appeals, he says the parishioners will stand firm. That will put the church in a difficult position. “They’re going to have to operate through writs of eviction and police or sheriffs’ deputies in five different jurisdictions,” he says.
Many protesters say they are willing to be arrested if it comes to that.
“But we would appreciate the cardinal being by the door explaining to us why it came to this,” Maryellen Rogers of St. Frances says. “Why he would not meet with us? Why they would not sit down and work on a resolution?”
The cardinal has not met with the groups running the occupations since 2008. The vigilers say while Sister Batho, who is the liaison for the archdiocese, lends a kind ear, she is not a decision maker. She says Cardinal Sean is a man of peace who is unlikely to call in the police.
But the archdiocese spokesman, Terry Donilon adds, “we also reserve the right — in the event of the need because of a safety issue or some other extenuating circumstance — to have to end them.”
The end might come sooner rather than later if the archdiocese is thinking about cost.
Because the church building no longer qualifies for a religious exemption, the town of Scituate recently ordered the archdiocese to pay about $45,000 in property taxes.
Other towns with church squatters might do the same. That would make the vigils even more expensive to tolerate, but a costly public-relations problem to solve.