Act of Faith: Church Congregants Hold Vigil

Parishioners risk arrest to prevent their churches from closing.

ByDan Harris
January 26, 2009, 3:48 PM

Jan. 26, 2009— -- As the sun rises outside St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, faithful Catholics have already filled the pews. But instead of gathering in their Sunday best, these congregants are waking up inside their church.

The friendly suburbanites of Scituate, Mass., are engaged in a faith-based occupation to protect their church, a movement they call "vigiling" that began more than four years ago.

"Vigiling is living your faith 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Mary Ellen Rogers, a lifelong parishioner of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. "The people that are in this vigil are parishioners who love their church and they love their faith."

In 2004, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said it would close St. Frances X. Cabrini and a dozen other churches in the area because of financial problems and a shortage of priests. While most churches closed their doors, parishioners from St. Frances X. Cabrini sneaked in and took over. Four other churches from the Boston area archdiocese are also holding vigils.

"This is a revolution. It's a revolution of faith," said Jon Rogers, spokesman for those staging the vigil at the St. Frances X. Cabrini Church. "It's up to us to enact fundamental changes that I believe this church needs to go through."

The archdiocese stripped the church of sacred objects, but 100 St. Frances X. Cabrini congregants operate what they say is a fully-functioning church, complete with rosary groups, Sunday school for their kids and, most provocatively, Sunday communion with wafers blessed by anonymous, sympathetic priests.

Parishioners stay on guard in the church day and night, sleeping there overnight, all in direct defiance of Vatican rules. "This has been my home away from home," one parishioner said.

Similar vigils are going on at four other churches in the Boston Archdiocese, including St. Therese, a church in the working class town of Everett, Mass. Church officials there recently shut off heat and running water. Holdouts have been forced to use porta-potties.

Despite 25-degree temperatures, St. Therese churchgoers are bundling up and staying put, defending the place where they have marked christenings, confirmations and weddings.

Vigilers Say Church Closures Stem from Costly Priest Lawsuits

"The toes are numb and the fingers are numbing. You get a big blanket, another layer, another layer, whatever it takes," said Joan Shepard, St. Therese vigil organizer. "Nothing is a discomfort when you believe in what you're doing."

Beneath the good cheer and passion, church members holding the vigil are angry at the archdiocese. They believe the real reason behind shutting down their churches was to sell them and raise money to settle lawsuits from the priest sexual abuse scandals.

"All the money that was spent ... it had to come from the parishes," said Lillian Goreham, mother of two from Everett, Mass. "At the time the real estate market was high, and I think that they thought, 'Oh, well, we can sell this parcel next door ... and they would make money."

Vigil spokesman Rogers said the closing of the churches has put the fate of pedophile priests ahead of faithful congregants.

"They do this so they'll sell it [the church] off to the highest bidder," he said. "So they can replenish the costs depleted by sexual abuse. This is causing unimaginable pain and anguish. And they respond not with compassion or understanding; they respond by demanding that we surrender our church."

The archdiocese denied the allegations, saying that these churches would "probably" have closed anyway. A representative of the archdiocese told ABC News that while the commitment of vigil organizers is admirable, it's time for them to stop.

"We want to call them into unity, and we want to be one mind and one heart," said the Rev. Richard Erikson, vicar general of the Boston Archdiocese.

Recently, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had church members holding vigil there taken out in handcuffs. The Boston Archdiocese said it can't imagine taking similar steps in Scituate, but those holding vigil said that's the only way they'll leave.

"As long as the Lord gives my feet the movement, the arms movement and my mouth movement," Shepard of St. Therese said, she'll keep at it.

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