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Church, Going

Church, Going

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    Camilo José Vergara

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Blessed Sacrament, Jamaica Plain Closed 8/2004 Bought by Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. 12/2005 After closing in August 2004, Blessed Sacrament was sold to the nonprofit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. (JPNDC) and New Atlantic Development for conversion to affordable housing in an area where it is increasingly scarce. A first phase of 80 housing units in the former rectory and convent, as well as in a new building, has begun.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Blessed Sacrament, Jamaica Plain Closed 8/2004 Bought by Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. 12/2005 The second phase, housing in the church, will require considerable subsidies. A former school building is converting to a community center. "This is really a development that's going to serve the people here," says Joseph Vallely, a JPNDC board member and fellow parishioner, "not bring in new people."

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    Camilo José Vergara

    St. Mary Star of the Sea, East Boston Closed 8/2004 Bought last year by a local photographer, then resold weeks later for $1.8 million profit The archdiocese closed this 1909 Romanesque church near Boston's Logan Airport and sold it for $850,000 in November 2006 to a photographer, Michael Indresano, who promised to turn it into condominiums and his own studio. Instead, Indresano resold the building weeks later for $2.65 million to a controversial Brazil-based Pentecostal congregation, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which has been called a dangerous cult and linked to alleged fraud, money laundering, and child abuse in Europe and elsewhere.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Immaculate Conception, North Cambridge Closed 2/2005 Sold to Serbian Orthodox Church In November 2005 this church was sold to St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. It reopened two months later. Father Aleksandar Vlajkovic is awaiting delivery next June of the ritualistic wood screen, the ikonostasis, that will separate the sanctuary from the central nave; it is being carved by an artist in Novi Sad, Serbia. With the nearest Serbian Orthodox churches in Canada and New York City, ethnic Serbs come from far and wide to worship. On big feast days, Vlajkovic says, up to 700 people attend services. The white tent was erected for Serb Fest 2007. At last year's festival, says Vlajkovic, "a lot of [Immaculate Conception] parishioners showed up."

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    St. Ann, Fenway Closed 10/2004 Sold to Northeastern University After St. Ann University Parish closed in October 2004, tensions mounted in the Fenway neighborhood over a bid for the building by Northeastern University, whose students the church had served for 25 years. The Fenway Community Development Corp. had hoped to buy the property to build 50 condominiums, including 13 affordable units, on the site.

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    St. Ann, Fenway Closed 10/2004 Sold to Northeastern University Northeastern's bid prevailed. Residents criticized the archdiocese for favoring the university's higher bid over the needs of the community. Northeastern now uses the church as meeting space.

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    Blessed Sacrament, Cambridge Closed 9/2004 Sold to a luxury developer Developer Paul Ognibene bought this property in the Cambridgeport neighborhood from the archdiocese and is converting it to condominiums. In the first phase, the 1924 brick school overlooking a small park is becoming 23 units priced between $519,000 and $849,000. Condominiums within the church itself are expected to go on the market in 2008.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    St. James the Apostle, Arlington Sold to Greek Orthodox Church 11/2005 St. James had a huge congregation during the postwar suburban boom, but after the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, "people began to drift away," says former parishioner James McGough. The church now belongs to a burgeoning Greek Orthodox congregation.

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    Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, East Boston Closed 10/2004 Parishioners' vigil has lasted three years In October, a group of parishioners from this largely Italian- American church marked the third anniversary of a protest vigil they and their supporters have held to keep the parish open. For the vigil's first two years, protesters slept inside the church. Now they believe the archdiocese is ultimately loath to remove them. The only comment from the archdiocese's Kathleen Heck is that Our Lady of Mount Carmel "is home to a prayer vigil."

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    Holy Trinity, South End Slated for closure Boston's only Latin Mass moved to a suburban church in 4/2007 Built in 1877, Holy Trinity is the seat of the German Catholic community in Boston. After 1990, it was the only church to offer Latin Mass. In 2004, the archdiocese announced plans to close the church on June 30, 2005. Rather than close it, however, that year the archdiocese announced plans to move Latin Mass to another church, infuriating worshipers who came from miles around for its ancient prayers and Gregorian chant. In July, Pope Benedict XVI relaxed the rules for Latin Masses, inspiring parishioners to hold one of their own at Holy Trinity in September in defiance of the archdiocese. Genevieve Schmidt, the church's musician, contends the denial of Latin Mass to Holy Trinity is "against canonical law-which is just a small matter." If the church were to close, the social services programs it hosts for elderly homeless people and troubled teenagers would have to move elsewhere.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Holy Trinity, South End, Boston

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Holy Trinity, South End, Boston

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Holy Trinity, South End, Boston

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Holy Trinity, South End, Boston

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    Camilo José Vergara

    Archdiocese of Boston campus, Brighton Sold to Boston College 8/2007 Symbolic of its humbling in the wake of the abuse scandal, the Boston Archdiocese began selling to the Jesuit-run Boston College the idyllic property and buildings it had called home since the 1920s_a place that has been called a "Little Rome on the hills of Brighton." In 2004, the college paid $99 million for 44 acres plus the 1927 cardinal's residence, the 1936 St. Williams Hall (a dormitory), the 1940 St. Clement's Hall (a preparatory seminary), and a small gymnasium. Last year, it paid $8 million more for five acres and the 1920s tribunal building. In June, the remaining 18 acres went to the college for $65 million, along with the chancery housing the archdiocesan headquarters and three other buildings. Though Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley expressed regret at having to sell the campus, he noted, "It is good that we have been able to keep the property within the Catholic family."

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    Archdiocese of Boston campus, Brighton Sold to Boston College 8/2007 The church retains ownership of St. John's Seminary, an 1880s ledge-stone fortress.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    St. Augustine, South Boston Closed 11/2004 Sold to a luxury condominium developer 10/2007 The South Boston Neighborhood Development Corp. lost its bid to turn the church and nearby parish-school property into affordable housing for seniors and veterans.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    St. Joseph, Hyde Park Closed 8/2004 Sold the following year to a Pentecostal church A 200-member charismatic Pentecostal congregation, the Greater Faith Worship Center, bought St. Joseph's church, rectory, and 500-seat hall in October 2005 for $2.8 million.

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    Camilo José Vergara

    St. Peter Lithuanian, South Boston Slated for possible closure Panic set in after the 2004 announcement that St. Peter Lithuanian Parish, with 1,300 parishioners, would close (in all, three of four Boston-area Lithuanian parishes were listed for closing). Considered the stronghold of the city's Lithuanians, who began arriving in the late 1880s, St. Peter played a vital role during the 50-year Soviet occupation of their country, when religious activity was suppressed. (The placing of crosses in front of the church, above right, evokes the devotional "Hill of Crosses" in Lithuania where worshipers express their nationalistic Catholic faith and defiance against foreign invaders.) The planned closing made the front page of Lithuania's largest daily newspaper and highlighted the sensitivity for the archdiocese in shuttering 13 of its 41 ethnic parishes. Archbishop O'Malley gave priority for remaining open to parishes serving more-recent immigrant populations. Nonetheless, in June 2005, O'Malley granted St. Peter Lithuanian a reprieve. "They'll review our status in two years and make a decision then," says a parish spokeswoman, Mirga Girnius.

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    St. Peter Lithuanian, South Boston

In May 2004, Sean P. O'Malley, the Catholic archbishop of Boston, announced that 65 parishes out of 357 would close in a massive “reconfiguration” of the Boston Archdiocese. The closings had been half expected: In Boston, as in other big cities, urban parishes were seeing a fall in the number of parishioners. Fewer men were entering the priesthood, making parishes harder to manage. Pension commitments were underfunded (by a staggering $135 million, according to a 2006 report). And then the clergy sex abuse scandal emerged nationwide, especially acutely in Boston, where it has cost the archdiocese $150 million to settle with plaintiffs.

But the reality of the closings still struck the region's 2 million Catholics like a series of intensely local earthquakes. At St. James the Apostle, in suburban Arlington, Mass., James McGough, a barber now retired, resolved to accept his parish's closing with sadness, despite his long attachment to the place. He had served as elector at St. James for 14 years until 1985, when he became its lead cantor for the next nine. Funerals for both of his parents had been held there. The parish's closing disillusioned the congregation of 500—down from about 1,200 four decades ago—McGough recalled recently, sitting in a small art museum, not far from the church, where he is chairman emeritus. But “there were no sit-ins or protests,” he said, as there had been at numerous other parishes in the archdiocese. “The people here at St. James went along with it.”

For their acquiescence, the parishioners at St. James were not treated especially gently by the Boston Archdiocese. In October 2004, on the eve of a final celebratory Mass for the church, which was established in 1914, McGough remembers that St. James' pastor, the Rev. Francis E. Daley, had to go to the archdiocesan headquarters to retrieve a key. The previous day, officials with the archdiocese—taking no chances on protests—had come and changed the church's locks, “so that Father Daley couldn't even get in to celebrate Mass,” McGough says. “That hurt worse than anything,” he says, because “they didn't trust us.”

  • Blessed Sacrament Church, Jamaica Plain

    Credit: Camilo José Vergara

    Blessed Sacrament Church, Jamaica Plain

A year later, St. James became a new church. A Greek Orthodox congregation in Arlington, St. Athanasius the Great, bought the three-acre St. James complex for $6 million. St. Athanasius is bursting with members—at last count, about 900 families. That Nov. 27, the Rev. Fr. Nicholas M. Kastanas of St. Athanasius held the final Divine Liturgy in its longtime church, an 1841 whiteboard Greek Revival building on Massachusetts Avenue. Afterward, the congregation made a procession up the avenue to their new church on Appleton Street.

“A group of us from St. James met them at the front door and wished them the best,” McGough recalls. “There were about 60 of us. They were flabbergasted.”

After Decades of Change, Contraction

When a church closes, passions turn inside out. The rituals and routines that serve as spiritual mileposts to a people go unrequited. The container of countless shared and private memories surrounding births, marriages, and deaths has been sealed shut, and its comforts can no longer be reached. The generosities of a church—for a solitary prayer, safe haven after school, a free hot dinner, or a holiday play—cease to flow. All that animates the gloriously dressed shell left behind are questions of a rank material order: What can be done with this building?

A year after the Boston parish closings were announced, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named all of the historic Catholic churches of greater Boston to its annual list of the 11 most endangered places in the United States. Citing the “spiritual and artistic achievements of generations” embodied in the churches, the trust was trying to keep the buildings from being greatly altered or torn down as the archdiocese put them on the market to help pay off a $46 million deficit.

Boston's Archdiocese is scarcely alone in its dilemma to keep or close sacred properties. Many U.S. dioceses have been contracting for years, particularly in the Rust Belt and the plains. A 2004 study by USA Today found that between 1990 and 2003, all five of Indiana's dioceses shrank by number of parishes, and all but one of six in Ohio and seven of eight in Pennsylvania did so, as did West Virginia's only diocese, by 11 percent. In Wichita, Kan., the diocese scaled back by 19 percent, to 91 parishes.

The number of Catholic parishes nationwide peaked in 1995 at 19,331 and had fallen to 18,634 as of this year, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. About 3,200 of those parishes had no priest as a resident pastor (there were 549 such vacancies in 1965). Congregations have moved with the rest of the population from city to suburb in the Northeast and Midwest, and away from those regions entirely toward the burgeoning South and the West, where the church's growth in recent decades has been strongest. For the Catholic Church, the paradox has been a growing population nationwide but falling Mass attendance. About 33 percent of American Catholics say they go to church on Sundays, down from about 74 percent in the late 1950s.

Money donations have slowed accordingly and dropped off further in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, which began in 2002 and have cost the church nationally more than $2 billion so far.

In settling these cases, real estate has been the asset of first resort for most dioceses. As a symbolic impoverishment, some dioceses are selling their headquarters. The Boston Archdiocese sold its chancery and 67 gorgeously landscaped acres to Boston College for $172 million and is moving to offices in Braintree. (Church leaders are adamant that proceeds from this sale only—and not from the closed parishes—will finance the abuse settlements.) The Milwaukee Archdiocese is selling its headquarters on a 44-acre campus. In Chicago, the archdiocese is selling the seven-story Pastoral Center, its Gold Coast headquarters. The Diocese of Providence, R.I., sold its bishop's summer home in 2003 for about $7 million toward paying off $14 million in sex abuse claims.