Court Rules in Favor of Archdiocese in Property-Rights Suit

''The Court simply is prohibited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from involving itself in such a dispute between members of the Church''
( [email protected] ) Sep 16, 2004 11:04 AM EDT

A Superior Court judge declined to halt the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston from selling a Weymouth church, during a property rights claim filed by rebellious parishioners, on Wednesday, Sept 15, 2004. Despite the ruling, parishioners said they will continue the round-the-clock sit-in at their beloved church and file an appeal to both the U.S. federal court and the Holy See in Rome in order to keep the chapel doors open.

``The Court simply is prohibited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from involving itself in such a dispute between members of the Church,” Judge Thomas Connolly wrote in his brief decision.

Over 150 parishioners of St. Albert the Great – one of 82 parishes that are being closed by the Boston Archdiocese this year – clamored onto three buses last Wednesday to view the court hearing. St. Albert’s members claimed the church belonged to them, rather than to the Boston archdiocese, since the parishioners built and financed it.

Despite Connolly’s clear ruling in favor of the Archdiocese, he mentioned in a footnote that the “Court fully appreciates the hurt and suffering and loss suffered by the plaintiffs.”

Connolly also did not dismiss the lawsuit altogether, leaving the parishioners with some hope that they can appeal and win their case.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said church officials hope the ruling will help end the occupation. According to Coyne, the church had already “ceased to exist” on Sept 1, the scheduled date of the closure.

However, Colin Riley, a spokesman for the parishioners, said the sit-in - which began on August 29 - will continue.

"We will not leave the property,” said Riley.

“We knew the hurdle was going to be high,'' Riley continued, ``but this isn't about a building. This is about a community of faith and a wonderful lay leadership that is a model for the church. This is something the archdiocese should be replicating rather than trying to marginalize.''

Meanwhile, the same day, parishioners at St. Anselm Church in Sudbury drew out a breadth of relief as the Archdiocese did not close the church on the scheduled day.

St. Anselm’s members, inspired by the members at St. Albert’s, began their own round-the-clock vigil on Sunday.

According to the initial plans, the Archdiocese were to send an official to take the keys of St. Anselm’s and lock up the chapel doors at noon. However, no officials arrived for the scheduled closing, and no one challenged the parishioners who were protesting all around the church.

"We are committed. We are a committed Catholic community. A caring, committed Catholic community and we're not going to leave until we're done," said one parishioner as he marched around with signs.

Meanwhile, in a worrisome development for the Archdiocese, several other parishes joined on the “24-hour vigil lock-in” initiative; or, at least they claimed they will join within weeks.

Richard Rowland of St. Bernard's Parish in West Newton said members there will begin their own sit-in Oct. 24, the day of the last scheduled Mass. Parishioners said that as many as 60 people had already signed up for a sit-in.

''We have written letters and petitions, and there has been no response, other than to say, 'We're closing you, sorry,' " said Rowland, a 72-year-old Eucharistic minister at the parish. ''People are very committed to it, because we think it is a tragic mistake that the archdiocese is making.

''When you can't get their attention, you have to hit them over the head with a two-by-four," he said.

The pastors at St. Susanna's Church in Dedham, Mass., and St. Catherine of Siena church in Charlestown said they also expect to hold vigils to protest the closing of their churches slated for Nov. 1.

Additionally, parishioners at Sacred Heart in Boston's North End section filed a civil suit similar to that of St. Albert’s, to halt the chapel’s scheduled lock down.

The Boston Archdiocese’s scheduled church closures are the largest of its kind in the history of U.S. Catholicism. In late May, the archdiocese announced plans to close 82 churches this year; last year, it paid a settlement of $85 million to 500 victims of clergy sex abuse, causing many to suspect the reasons for the parish-sales.

Church officials blamed lagging attendance, a shortage of priests and high maintenance costs, as the reason for the closures, but many parishioners at churches scheduled for closing said the criteria do not apply to their churches.

To date, 21 parishes have closed without incident.