After hundreds of meetings in dozens of clusters in every corner of the Archdiocese of Boston, the initial recommendations for the parish reconfiguration process were submitted to the archdiocese on March 8.
Cluster after cluster grappled with the difficult decision of choosing which among their own parishes should remain open and which should be recommended for closure. Each of the 80 clusters of the archdiocese was asked to answer two questions: If only one parish in the cluster should close, which should it be? If more than one were to have to close, which should they be?
"This was, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have ever had to do as a priest," declared Father John O'Brien, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Quincy.
Father O’Brien’s cluster — which consists of the eight parishes in Quincy — held four separate meetings in order to evaluate which churches should be recommended for closure.
"It was a very difficult series of meetings because everyone had to look not only at their own parish realities, but also at the greater Church," recalled Father O'Brien. In the end, the cluster decided to recommend that Star of the Sea Parish close, followed by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John the Baptist parishes.
Father O’Brien was quick to point out that, “these are recommendations, not decisions.”
"I don't have the perspective of the vicars, or the regional bishops or even the archbishop, who will, I am sure, look at this from an entirely different pastoral point of view," he said.
Father Thomas Bouton, administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Stoughton is also confident that the recommendations “are not set in stone.”
"One of the major difficulties in this entire process is that the media has portrayed these recommendations as a done deal, and that is just not the case," stressed Father Bouton.
The media portrayal has created much anxiety in Father Bouton’s parish, since his is the one recommended for closure in his cluster — which consisted of the six parishes in Stoughton, Canton and Sharon.
Father Bouton believes his parish was selected “due to the misinformation that the pastoral activity is small.”
"The truth is that ours is the only parish in the entire area which caters to the Brazilian community," he said.
According to Father Bouton, Brazilians from all over the region come to his parish. Our Lady of the Rosary currently holds two Portuguese language Masses a week, as well as offering a vibrant prayer group and a religious education program that serves over 200 children.
However, in his cluster meetings, many of the representatives from neighboring parishes did not want to include any of the Brazilian statistics when evaluating Our Lady of the Rosary’s parish statistics, he said.
"That was a source of lively discussion, let me tell you," Father Bouton said with chuckle.
Although the statistics were eventually considered, the cluster ultimately decided to recommend Our Lady of the Rosary for closure. Yet, “when push comes to shove, no compelling reasons were ever put forward,” protested Father Bouton.
He added that, although many parishioners are anxious, “we still have hope that the reasons to keep this parish open are quite sound,” noting that Archbishop Seán O’Malley has often stated that he places a high priority on ministering to the immigrant Catholic populations.
'The best and the worst comes out of you'
In some parish clusters, the task of selecting one parish over another has proved to be near impossible.
"All of us went away from the meetings disillusioned, angry and upset," declared Father Vincent Von Euw, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Dorchester. "The best and the worst comes out of you."
According to Father Von Euw, in his cluster “the process of voting was manipulative. There was no understanding of the voting process. There was no self-criticism. We were all fighting for our own positions.”
He believes that the worst of the process came out after the vote was cast.
According to Father Von Euw, the North Dorchester cluster — which consists of five Dorchester parishes, ultimately decided rather than submit only one name, they should list the order in which they felt the parishes should close if necessary: first St. William, followed by St. Christopher, St. Ambrose, and St. Peter and St. Margaret were tied to close fourth.
However, in the vicar’s report to the regional bishop, Bishop John Boles, the order of the parishes was different, he said. In that report, according to Von Euw, it was recommended that St. Christopher parish close, followed by St. Ambrose and St. William parishes, in that order. No mention was made of the other two parishes.
"This is not what the cluster voted on," he stressed.
For Father Von Euw, to suggest his parish be the second to close is “total insensitivity to the Spanish-speaking community,” since his is the only parish with a vibrant Hispanic ministry.
In addition to serving the Hispanics with the Sunday liturgy, St. Ambrose Parish has a Hispanic youth group, a “rich” catechetical program and “the only urban marriage program for all the ethnicities of the area,” he said.
"Ours is a multi-faced, multi-colored parish," he said, adding that "we are not a financial burden," since St. Ambrose is one of the newest churches in the area and does not require any maintenance.
"To close St. Ambrose would be a great disservice to the Church," wrote Father Von Euw in a March 5 letter to his vicar forane.
'If it's God's will, we will accept it gracefully'
Another regional cluster — that of the Framingham parishes — also suggested that the only parish that serves the Hispanic population in Framingham should be the one to close.
"Because of the potential for growth in Framingham, we initially thought none of the parishes should close," Father Laurence Borges, from St. Stephen Parish in Framingham, said.
"All the parishes in Framingham we thought were necessary, but out of obedience to our archbishop, we answered the questions before us," he continued, remarking that the cluster meetings "were very difficult."
Ultimately, St. Stephen was one of the parishes chosen for closing, although Father Borges feels his parish is in a strong position to remain open.
"We minister to a very large Hispanic community -- and we think that's a very important factor to consider," he said.
In addition, his parish receives a monthly income from a charter school that operates on its grounds.
However, Father Borges stressed that the most important consideration is what will ultimately strengthen the Church, a point he is trying to convey to his parishioners.
"Many of the parishioners are hurt by the recommendation, but we are trying to show them that they must support Archbishop Seán now, because he's in the most difficult position of all," Father Borges said.
"If it's God's will that this parish close, then we will accept it gracefully," he continued.