In Massachusetts, an 11-year vigil to redefine church

Published Oct. 16, 2015

Nearly every Sunday for the past 11 years, 90-something Evelyn Morton and her daughter have made the 12-mile drive from their home in East Weymouth, Mass., to the church of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate.

There, from about two to four o’clock in the afternoon, they held vigil with local parishioners, fighting to keep the church open after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston closed the building in 2004.

On Thursday – the day after Massachusetts’ top court ruled that the parishioners were trespassing by occupying the church – Ms. Morton made the drive herself.

“Our church was closed, too,” she says, her curly white hair bobbing as she speaks. The Archdiocese later reversed its decision and reopened her church, St. Albert the Great. “We all have to stick together,” Morton says.

St. Frances X. Cabrini is the last holdout of six churches occupied in protest after the Archdiocese attempted to reconfigure local parishes following a clergy sex abuse scandal more than a decade ago. The case aggravated a problem already facing Catholic churches across the nation: declining attendance and donations and too few priests.

But the case also highlights a deeper problem for churches particularly in the Northeast, but also across the country. As the number of churchgoers declines, St. Frances X. Cabrini points to the question of what church is in the hearts of its parishioners and priests.

“The standoff indicates … how differently a certain number of American Catholic laity perceive what it means to be a church, compared to what the hierarchy or clerics mean to be a church,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “The way [the laity] articulate it is in terms of community, relationships, neighborly love. For the hierarchs, it’s at a more abstract level.”

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