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Church Closings PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, June 01 2004 19:00
“My heart is broken.” These words from an elderly woman shown on a television news program represent the feelings of many people whose parish churches face closing.

A priest who is an official of the Archdiocese of Boston simply says of such a closing: “It’s a death.”

The decision of the archdiocese to shut the doors of some 60 churches has made Catholics in many areas weep. Some of their pastors who must move out for another assignment, or perhaps retirement, also feel the loss. Among them, a few have tearfully said they also feel a rejection of their ministry.

Incidentally, one of the churches to be phased out is Our Lady of Mercy in Belmont, the parish where I received my first communion. The memory of this event, happening when I was seven years old, has given me a lasting emotional tie to a building that will soon be given over to the wrecking ball.

In contacting parishioners for this column, I had hoped that they would talk about the connections between their parish church and their spiritual life. Some of them did speak to that subject but only in passing. Instead I discovered that most of them were preoccupied with other issues, so much so that it was hard for them to talk about anything else.

Almost inevitably, to some parishioners the closings are connected with the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Archdiocese of Boston. Despite official denials, many people believe that the closings would not have otherwise taken place.

Asked about the closings, one longtime parishioner says: “My honest opinion is that none of it would have happened were it not for the abuse cases. The whole thing boils down to this: they have to absorb the cost of abuse cases that happened 40 years ago.”

On a more personal level, he confides his feelings about his own parish: “I’m very disenchanted. I’ve been in this church since 1947, my kids were baptized there, my parents were buried there. Where am I going to be buried?”

His ultimate feeling is one of resignation: “I’m still hurt but you’ve got to roll with it; the archbishop has made the decision.”

This parishioner’s wife adds: “Our pastor was devastated and angry. They told him to get over it.”

Another man has been connected to his parish his whole life, 74 years. “It means a lot to me that it’s closed. I’m sorry because it’s a warm church, it’s been the spiritual side of my life.”

Yet this same man goes on to insist “I’ve got my own faith and that is not going to be changed by the closing. Spiritually, the church is the same.”

A friend who lives in a suburb northwest of Boston says the people there do not much care which parish they go to: “They don’t have the same attachment that people in the inner cities have.”  He, too, sees a tight connection between the parish closings and the sexual abuse scandals.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the closings should not have happened. Ann Smith, whose parish will be closed, says: “I think people have to get behind this and support it. As badly as I feel, something has to be done.”

This comes from a person who received her first communion and confirmation in her current parish church and was also married there. But she admires the archbishop and realizes that his is not an easy task. Having attended several cluster meetings during the planning period, she sees more clearly why the decisions had to be made.

A lawyer who attends church in the Gloucester area does not agree. He goes so far as to call the closings “church-sponsored iconoclasm.” With this phrase he regrets that the archdiocese is tearing down so many valued structures.

My findings suggest that the official church has a larger problem, a crisis of confidence on the part of not a few members. Had I spoken to Haitians, African-Americans and other Catholic minority communities, I suspect their reactions to the closing of parishes might have been even more negative.

Perhaps the Archdiocese needs a more thorough process if it expects to bring its people along with its plans.

Richard Griffin