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10-year fight over waterfront church pits Boston Archdiocese against parishioners

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    St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, pictured above, was closed in October 2004 by the Boston Archdiocese, citing financial difficulties and a decline in Mass attendance.

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For more than half a century, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church has represented the heart and soul of Boston's so-called "Irish Riviera," according to parishioners who have spent the last decade defying the archdiocese's bid to close the narthex doors for good.

To the Archdiocese of Boston, a dwindling congregation and a shortage of priests, among other factors, marked the church for closure in October 2004, which the Vatican supported. But congregants, who have maintained a constant presence in the church ever since and conducted ongoing services with laymen officiating, say it is the 30 acres of prime, ocean-view real estate the church sits on that has the hierarchy looking to sell. 

And they believe the sweat equity they've poured into the church over the years makes it theirs, not the archdiocese's.

"This is our church," Jon Rogers, an occupation organizer and a founder of the nonprofit support group, "The Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini," told "We have self-supported it for decades. Every Sunday the pastor would say, 'We need some repairs here. We need a new carpet. We need a new roof. It's your church.'"

Archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said the decision to shut the doors in 2004 was part of a larger parish closure and he cited a decline in Mass attendance and a "dramatic" drop in the number of priests.

But the congregation tells a very different story -- claiming St. Frances had 3,000 registered parishioners in 2004 who were providing enough money to not only support the church but also fund the building of a school and church in India.

"We are the highest percentage of Irish Catholics of any town in America," said Rogers, who said the church was always thriving. 

Donilon offered a much lower number, telling that the average weekly Mass attendance in 2003 stood at 804. He said that year the church held 26 baptisms, 52 First Communions, 49 Confirmations, 8 weddings and 22 funerals.

Since the announcement was made to close the church in October 2004, congregants have held vigils in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- sleeping on the floor and in pews and holding Sunday service, during which the occupants recite prayers, listen to Bible readings and receive consecrated hosts secretly provided by area priests, according to Rogers. The gatherings are lay-led services, he explained, and the Eucharist is given to the congregation by Eucharistic ministers.

The congregants say that between 100 and 200 people attend weekly Sunday service and that hundreds more are present for special events, like those held during the major Catholic holidays -- a claim that Donilon strongly refutes.

"The last Easter service had approximately 700 people," Rogers said.

He also noted that parishioners have maintained the 55-year-old building over the years, spending thousands of dollars on repairs and renovations, like painting and new woodwork, as well as purchasing a new furnace.

"We were told for over 50 years that this was our church."

- Jon Rogers, congregant of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini church

Parishioners voted unanimously on Sunday to request that Pope Francis investigate the Boston Archdiocese's handling of funds, said Rogers, whose group believes the archdiocese is flush with cash and has no need to close the church. They charge church leaders want to sell the valuable property -- worth as much as $1 million per acre by some estimates -- to replenish the coffers that were greatly depleted through massive clergy sex abuse settlements.

The U.S. Catholic Church has paid close to $2.8 billion in legal costs related to clergy sex abuse cases, according to a 2013 report by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We were told for over 50 years that this was our church," Rogers said, "And it was our church until the very day when the archdiocese said, 'It's now ours and we need to liquify it to pay for the sins of our priests.'"

Although a Vatican court ruled in June that the Boston Archdiocese, which owns the property, is permitted to sell or re-use the building, Rogers and canon law consultant Peter Borres argue that a subsequent appeal is necessary because, they claim, the latest public financial report on the Boston Archdioceses's website reveals a $41 million surplus.

Donilon vehemently denied the charge that the church was being closed so the property could be sold to pay off prior legal settlements. 

"We are not selling churches to pay for the legal fees of the sex abuse cases," said Donilon, who also denied the archdiocese is sitting on a surplus. He said the $41 million figure cited by Rogers is "misleading," because it represents a cumulative total for 288 parishes, and is not money the archdiocese can divert to a struggling parish.

"With regards to the surplus question, money in the bank accounts of parishes are solely for those parishes," Donilon said. "By Church law, these assets cannot be used at the discretion of the archdiocese."

"No plans" have been discussed about what will be done with the property, which sits about a half mile from the Atlantic Ocean, Donilon added. He called the claim by congregants that the property is to be sold to a condominium developer false.

"We don't know what we're going to do with the property," he said.

Donilon said church leaders will continue to "work for a peaceful resolution," even if occupants refuse to physically leave the building, though he added, "This will not go on forever -- it simply can't." He said there are other nearby parishes that would welcome the congregation "with open arms." 

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley has asked the congregation to ends it occupation of the church and respect the ruling of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest court, which denied their appeal seeking to prevent the sale or repurposing of the building.

"Your participation in the appeals process presumed that you would accept the final decision, even if it were not favorable to your desired outcome," O’Malley wrote in a July 29 letter. "Now we are simply asking for demonstration of your good faith."

Rogers said the congregation has requested to buy the structure from the Boston Archdiocese, which turned down the offer.

"That's not happening," Donilon said. "What they want to create is not a parish."

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