Vatican rules on appeals by closed parishes

BOSTON — The Archdiocese of Boston announced Jan. 14 that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy ruled on the appeals of 10 parishes that were closed in the process of archdiocesan reconfiguration. All of the appeals were denied.

“We appreciate the disappointment that this news brings to those who submitted the appeals and all who are saddened by the parish closings,” Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley said. “While many members of closed parishes have joined, enriched and strengthened neighboring parish communities, others continue to struggle with the effects of reconfiguration.”

“This has been a difficult time for our Catholic community. We wish to express our gratitude to the many priests, deacons, religious and parishioners who have generously accepted the need for change in light of our limited resources,” added the archbishop.

The former parishes are Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere, Star of the Sea in the Squantum section of Quincy, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate, Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence in Brookline, St. James the Great in Wellesley, Sacred Heart in Natick, Our Lady of Mercy in Belmont, St. Augustine in South Boston, St. Jeremiah in Framingham and St. Anselm in Sudbury.

Three of those churches reopened last year as worship sites of neighboring parishes. St. Anselm is a chapel of St. George Parish in Framingham, Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence is a chapel of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Brookline and Star of the Sea is a chapel of Sacred Heart Parish in Quincy.

The archdiocese cited “declining numbers of clergy, changing Catholic demographics and significant financial pressures” as the causes of parish reconfiguration that began in January of 2004.

Peter Borre, co-chair of the Council of Parishes, spoke on behalf of the organization, which counts former members of Our Lady of Lourdes, Star of the Sea, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence, St. James the Great, Sacred Heart, St. Jeremiah and St. Anselm among its members. The Council of Parishes is a lay organization formed to oppose the parish closing process.

“As the Council of Parishes we were disappointed but not surprised,” Borre said of the congregation’s decision. “I am very confident that some of the eight who were denied at the level of the Congregation of the Clergy will appeal the next step up, which is the Apostolic Signatura.”

The group is also considering action in Massachusetts civil court.

Last August, while not questioning the right of the archbishop to suppress parishes, the congregation raised questions about the sections of Canon Law invoked by the archdiocese in the closing process.

The vast majority of reconfiguration parish closings have been implemented through a process known in Canon Law as suppression. In the case of suppression, which is governed by Canon 123, a parish is legally dissolved and both the assets and the liabilities of the parish revert to the archdiocese.

Included in most decrees of suppression was a paragraph assigning the closing parish’s territory to a neighboring parish. By including the paragraph, the Vatican contended, the archdiocese inadvertently invoked Canon 122, which deals with the division of parishes.

According to that canon, a closed parish’s property and bank accounts — along with liabilities — must be transferred to the receiving parish or parishes.

The ethnic parishes with pending appeals were not affected by the decision because they did not have parish territories.

The congregation suggested at that time the issue could be resolved if the pastors of the receiving parishes voluntarily ceded the assets of the closed parishes to the archdiocese.

The pastors of all 10 receiving parishes affected by the Vatican’s final ruling agreed to do so after consulting their parish councils.

A copy of a letter to parishioners signed by the 10 pastors was released by the archdiocese along with the announcement.

“In order for the assets and liabilities to be transferred to the archdiocese as originally planned, the archbishop has asked the pastors of the receiving parishes to determine the amount of assets of the closed parish needed to support their additional parishioners, those coming from the closed parish, and to surrender any claims to the remaining assets and liabilities,” the letter said.

“Having the assets and liabilities of the closed parishes go to the archdiocese and then be redistributed for the good of all was deemed the fairest outcome,” the letter continued. “If the receiving parishes had kept the assets and liabilities of the closed parishes, then some receiving parishes would have become richer and others would have taken on debt.”

The Congregation for the Clergy previously denied the appeal of St. William’s in Dorchester in November of last year. The archbishop had already assigned the assets of St. William’s to a new parish, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at the time of the ruling. In its decision, the congregation said that since the assets of St. William’s had already been transferred to its receiving parish there was no need to intervene.

The denial was the first decision handed down in the cases of 15 parishes that have appealed their closings to the Vatican dicastery.

The Vatican has yet to rule on the cases of three remaining appeals of non-territorial ethnic parishes — St. John D’Arc in Lowell, St. Ann in Marlborough and Sacred Heart in Boston’s North End.

One of the 15 parishes that filed appeals, St. Alphonsus in Danvers, withdrew its appeal last fall.