Archbishop accepts committee report, modifies reconfiguration

BRIGHTON — Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley announced on March 31 that he had accepted all of the 10 recommendations from the Reconfiguration Review Committee’s report, which included reopening a closed parish and modifying the status of three others.

St. Albert the Great parish in Weymouth will reopen, and St. Florence Parish in Wake-field will remain open despite being set for closure.

St. Anselm church in Sudbury will remain open as a chapel of St. George Parish in Framingham, and the pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Lexington, which was scheduled to close, will become pastor for both parishes in Lexington. At both parishes pastoral leadership will further consider the facilities needed to serve Catholics in the area.

Five suppressed parishes — Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence in Brookline, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston, St. Therese in Everett, St. James in Wellesley and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate — will remain closed. Sacred Heart Parish in Watertown will close as originally planned, although the closing date was delayed and a new one had not been assigned.

The committee will also continue to review several parishes, including St. Pius Tenth in Milton, St. Susanna in Dedham, St. Mary of the Angels in Roxbury and St. Thomas the Apostle in Peabody.

“The committee’s analysis included an evaluation of the vitality of parishes in the archdiocese. Several relevant parish factors were reviewed —Catholic population and offertory trends, certain sacramental counts, Mass attendance, geographical location as well as new information brought forth,” an March 31 archdiocesan statement said. “To complement the quantitative analysis, committee members gathered qualitative data by conducting 16 visits to parishes, meetings with 25 pastors of closed parishes and sending more than 300 written responses to communications it received including a number of extensive reports.”

“Committee members have helped me understand the concerns, the anger and the frustrations that have emerged from this reconfiguration process,” said Archbishop O’Malley in the statement. “While I recognize that these decisions will not please all who are affected, I am deeply grateful for the efforts of the committee members and all others who have worked so hard to help me reach this set of decisions.”

“Archbishop Seán has impressed us with his ability to respond,” said Peter Meade who co-chairs the committee with Sister Janet Eisner, SND. “He is an incredibly thoughtful leader in an extremely difficult time in the archdiocese.”

Archbishop O’Malley appointed the committee to review reconfiguration in October last year after recognizing the pain caused by consolidation of parishes in the archdiocese. The archbishop has accepted many of their recommendations, including decisions to change reconfiguration at St. Mary of the Angels in Roxbury, Sacred Heart in Watertown and Blessed Kateri Tekawitha in Plymouth.

“Every parish across this archdiocese is changing, we are all affected by reconfiguration. Each parish is made new. This time of transition can be unsettling for many people but we all have the opportunity to grow stronger in our faith and our connection to the Lord and one another,” said the archbishop speaking to the press along with Meade and Sister Janet March 31.

Sister Janet said that she and Meade have found many “faith-filled communities” while visiting with parishioners.

“That gives us great cause for hope,” she said.

Although no one, including Archbishop O’Malley, wants to see parishes close, the needs of the archdiocese had to be addressed, she added.

“I think with today’s announcements it’s clear that the archbishop has listened very, very carefully,” said Meade. “We really feel there’s an obligation for lay people to listen as well.”

Meade said he and Sister Janet saw strong faith and impressive leadership at St. Albert. That, along with new evidence about the growing Weymouth community, caused them to recommend reopening the parish.

Responding to questions about St. Albert’s former pastor, Father Ronald D. Coyne, who will not be reassigned to the Weymouth parish, Meade said the archbishop has said Father Coyne does not want to be assigned to that part of the archdiocese.

Sister Janet also stressed that vigils held by closed parishes like St. Albert’s did not determine whether or not they would reopen.

The reaction to these changes in reconfiguration differed from parish to parish and from Catholic to Catholic.

At St. Albert’s in Weymouth, where parishioners of the closed parish have held a 24-hour vigil since last August, there was a decided air of celebration. Seven months after the vigil started friends greeted each other, hugging and crying. People cheered and whistled. Cars honked as they passed in support.

Last May Father Coyne said he would hang white balloons outside if the parish would remain open. Many parishioners found out their parish would close when they drove by the church and saw there were no balloons outside. This time, parishioner Zako Hajjar purchased yellow and white balloons and tied them out front after learning that the parish would reopen. She came to the church as soon as she heard the news

“I left the iron on. I left everything on,” she said.

“We were pleased and we were thankful that the archdiocese had rethought and reversed their decision to close a vibrant, thriving parish,” said Mary Akoury, who was co-chair of St. Albert’s parish council.

Akoury said Catholics at St. Albert’s always remained hopeful that the parish would reopen, and now they are looking forward to working together with the new pastor. Reopening the parish is the first step in moving the archdiocese into the 21st century, allowing parishioners to help out with the management side of their parish while still leaving the spiritual and pastoral leadership to the pastor.

Estelle Stoddard who was at the parish when the news came said she was excited but the news was “bittersweet” because although the parish will reopen, Father Coyne will not be re-appointed.

“If we’d gotten both, we’d be dancing in the street right now,” she said.

Meanwhile in Sudbury, members of the St. Anselm Church’s parish community gathered for an evening of prayer, song and discussion in reaction to Archbishop O’Malley’s decision to keep the church open as a chapel.

“I am sure I speak for all the parishioners when I say we are very happy the archbishop looked into our situation and saw we are a vibrant community,” said Bill Bannon, a spokesman for the group of parishioners who have maintained a 24-hour vigil of the of the church since its closing was announced in September.

“The vigil was very effective,” said Ronald A. Nix, a member of the parish council.

Nix said the vigil was a way of communicating to the archbishop that the process needed a second look in regards to the St. Anselm’s.

Father John Fitzpatrick, who had been the church’s administrator before its closing, said there was a sense of relief and joy in the community upon hearing the news.

“I think people feel their voices were heard,” he said.

Deacon Joseph R. Ramrath, who led the gathering that night, said the vigil will continue until all of the lingering concerns are resolved.

During the vigil and concern over reconfiguration, the members of the parish have had a good relationship with the congregation at St. George Church in Framingham, he said.

As a chapel, St. Anselm will function as a worship facility under the direction of the pastor of St. George parish, he said. “But, we don’t know what that means. We don’t know if we will be able to hold our own Masses or what it means to be a chapel,” he said.

“In the press release, it was only two lines, so we are going to see,” he said.

Bannon said Sunday more than 300 parishioners gathered for Mass only to be told that permission for the Mass had not been given.

“The emotions are still very raw, but the positive mood has changed from Thursday when we received the news,” he said.

In Wakefield, Father Joseph Murphy, pastor of St. Florence Parish, held an impromptu Mass of Thanksgiving, for parishioners after learning that the impending closure of their parish had been cancelled. At the Mass Father Murphy told parishioners he had received an unexpected call from Msgr. Dennis Sheehan, pastor of St. Paul Parish in Cambridge and member of the Reconfiguration Review Committee earlier in the day. Msgr. Sheehan told him that changing demographics due to new home construction helped warrant keeping the church open.

“I had to ask him three times if it was really true,” Father Murphy told approximately 200 members of his congregation. “I had to process this for myself many times to believe this wasn’t a dream.”

For nearly a year, St. Florence parish community had struggled with the uncertainty of whether their pleas to the archdiocese and to the Vatican would be heard and the decision to close their church would be reversed.

“This was a very challenging situation to try to keep the people coming to church, while not offending the archbishop at the same time,” said Father Murphy, who welcomed parishioners to use the church throughout the day, but banned them from holding sit-ins as other closed parishes have done. The parish was slated for closure, but never received an official decree to close. 

It could be said that Father Murphy and the people of St. Florence participated fully in the resurrection of Christ this Easter season because after months of sadness and uncertainty, they were experiencing the rebirth of their parish. Parishioners were ecstatic that their church had been saved. Some even cried tears of joy during the Mass.

“Maybe we had to go through this to learn and to experience how important our church is to us,” Father Murphy stated. And now that the church is remaining open, “we have to put every ounce we can into maintaining our parish and I don’t mean financially. I mean spiritually.”

Father Murphy committed himself to mailing once a month a letter detailing the happenings at the parish, to holding one youth Mass a month and to appointing a youth representative to the pastoral council. He also asked the congregation to start thinking about a publicity campaign he wants to roll out to urge people to come back to the Church and to his parish in particular.

“I feel like taking an ad out in the paper saying St. Florence Parish is alive,” he declared.

Contributing to this story were Neil McCabe and Meghan Dorney.

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