Winchester man arrested for refusing to leave closed church

Despite the arrest of one parishioner who refused to leave Immaculate Conception Church in Winchester after the church’s Nov. 6 closing Mass, the Archdiocese of Boston says it has not changed its policies in dealing with sit-ins aimed at protesting parish closures.

After repeated requests from parishioners, the pastor and two off-duty police officers who had attended the Mass, Eugene Sweeney, 69, maintained that he would not leave the church. The pastor, Father Thomas Foley, then asked an officer to remove the man.

“Father Foley took this action because he had concern for this individual’s safety, since it appeared he would be staying in the church alone and because of his concern for the rest of the parishioners who had seen this parish closing through to conclusion, including the prayerful final liturgy,” the statement said. “Father Foley’s actions do not represent a change in the policies of the archdiocese, but rather his own judgement about what this particular situation warranted.”

The statement noted that “a number of parishioners” urged Sweeney to join them and leave. Those parishioners left and only Sweeney, the pastor and the off-duty police officers remained.

“They all continued to urge the man to leave,” the statement said. “When he would not, the pastor … asked the officer to remove the man.”

Sit-ins are currently being held at seven closed churches and one parish that remains open. The archdiocese has maintained that its goal is to dialogue with parishioners and explain the reasons for the closing of their parish and overall reconfiguration.

The arrest of a parishioner caused concern among those staging 24-hour sit-ins.

“There is no indication that Mr. Sweeney was being confrontational at the time. He is 69 years old, he is thin and frail and he does not have an Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of physicality or presence,” said Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, a group which supports those protesting parish closures. The council now claims representatives from 13 parishes — closed or set to close in reconfiguration.

In May, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley announced that 82 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes would close in reconfiguration, due to declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and financial problems. So far, 44 parishes have been suppressed, three have been created and there has been one merger.

AP materials contributed to this report.