New approach to Charlestown reconfiguration announced

Two weeks after announcing the delay of two church closures, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley has announced another decision apparently aimed at easing the transition for a group of parishioners affected by the archdiocese’s parish reconfiguration process.

A statement released Oct. 31 said that the archbishop has appointed Father James Ronan to serve as pastor of St. Mary in Charlestown, effective Nov. 5, and will also be appointed pastor of the neighborhood’s other two parishes over the next year. Father Ronan’s task will be to create one parish to serve the area.

"Presently there are three Catholic parishes in Charles-town within one square mile serving a decreased and ethnically diverse population," the statement said.

According to the archdi-ocese’s original plan for reconfiguration announced in May, St. Catherine of Siena was slated for closure and both St. Mary and St. Francis de Sales were to remain open. It was not clear whether, under this new approach, one of the existing parishes will remain or whether a new parish will be formed or which church buildings will remain open.

Speaking to The Pilot after the announcement, Father Ronan said change is always difficult, but the archdiocese must meet the challenge of finding the best way to respond to changes already occurring in the city.

"My plans are to come and start celebrating the Eucharist," he said, adding that he looks forward to gathering with the people of Charles-town to listen to them and ask them questions about how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

The statement said that Father Ronan will work with Father Daniel Mahoney, pastor at St. Francis, over the next year. St. Catherine’s pastor, Father Robert Bowers, will leave his position on Nov. 28, according to archdiocesan spokesperson Ann Carter.

"It is my hope that the Catholic community in Charlestown will unite in working with Father Ronan," the archbishop said in his statement. "I know he will build on the work already done by the parishioners and Fathers Bowers, [Paul] Coughlin and Mahoney in determining how the resources of the archdiocese are best utilized in Charlestown."

"Father Ronan's work in Hispanic ministry will be valuable in coordinating pastoral outreach to the Spanish-speaking people of Charlestown," he continued.

Father Ronan served for six years in Ecuador as member of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle and he has served as executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for the Church in Latin America.

Father Ronan’s last assignment was pastor at Holy Rosary Parish and administrator at Sts. Peter and Paul in Lawrence where he was also vicar forane. He has worked extensively on reconfiguration in Lawrence. Both Holy Rosary and Sts. Peter and Paul have been suppressed by the archdiocese and a new parish, Corpus Christi was formed there on Oct. 31. Father Ronan was appointed administrator, but a new priest will arrive on Nov. 5 as Father Ronan takes his new assignment in Charles-town.

Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, an organization protesting reconfiguration, said, as a parishioner at St. Catherine, he finds aspects of the archdiocese’s statement troubling.

"Catholics in Charlestown are left wondering what this press release means for the future of their parishes, and for two of Charlestown's current pastors," said Borre, referring to Fathers Bowers and Coughlin. "This indicates that in a matter as painful as suppressing two out of Charlestown's three parishes, one group will have an advocate of long standing, while the other two will not. This is not a fair play."

The assignment of Father Ronan could be a “positive step if it means that the process of eventually combining three parishes into a single one is transparent and fair,” he added.

In recent weeks, four new sit-ins at closed parishes have begun bringing the total number of parish occupations to seven. Parishioners of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate, St. Therese in Everett, Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence in Brookline and St. James the Great in Wellesley have begun occupying their churches. These are in addition to three ongoing sit-ins at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, St. Anselm in Sudbury and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston.

Meanwhile, parishioners of St. Bernard Parish in West Newton have begun a 24-hour vigil at their church despite the fact that the archdiocese announced Oct. 16 that the parish would “remain open for worship on Sundays until further notice.” The parish had been scheduled to close on Oct. 25.

A statement announcing the postponement of the closure of St. Bernard as well as another parish, St. Mary of the Angels in Roxbury, said, “The decision to establish a later closing date for St. Bernard’s was made to provide more time for the Archdiocese to work with parishioners there.”

According to Carter, the archdiocese hopes to dialogue with those resisting parish closures.

"The archdiocese continues to work with the parishioners in these parishes to help them understand reconfiguration, not only in their own parish, but in the archdiocese overall," said Carter.

In a separate development, St. James Parish in Stoughton has been granted a “reprieve,” Carter said. As of press time, the reasons for the reprieve were unclear, and the archdiocese had not announced whether the Committee for External Review of Reconfiguration, recently formed by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley, was involved in the decision.

A group called the Friends of St. Bernard is protesting the parish closures by placing eight billboards throughout the Boston area that read “Thou shalt not close vibrant parishes.” Those words, along with the group’s web address, are depicted on the background of a cloudy blue sky.

Rich Acerra, co-chair of the Friends of St. Bernard, said parishioners wanted to show that they felt the process of reconfiguration was flawed with an “appropriate, professional statement with all due respect to the archdiocese.”