SCITUATE – An 11-year, around-the-clock occupation of a closed Roman Catholic Church by a small group of dissident parishioners in this Boston suburb is about to end, their futile fight to claim ownership of the property rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday.
Jon Rogers, leader of the marathon sit-in, said the siege of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Church overlooking the Atlantic Ocean will end with a final service on May 29 in accord with an earlier state court agreement.
He said the clutch of former parishioners would continue to worship as “an independent Catholic church” at a location elsewhere.
The Boston Catholic Archdiocese closed the church in the fall of 2004, saying it could no longer justify two Catholic parishes in the town of 18,000 in view of dwindling membership and a scarcity of priests. It was one of several parishes in the archdiocese selected for closure.
But archdiocese officials failed to change the locks promptly on the doors to the church after the final Mass, allowing the occupiers to slip in and begin their sit-in that reached 4,220 days when the nation’s highest court announced it would not review the state court decision requiring an end to the vigil.
The rejection left standing a decision by a state judge one year ago that the occupiers were really trespassers because they did not hold title to the church property. They immediately appealed but the Massachusetts Court of Appeals agreed with the judge. The occupiers then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.
“From day one, we promised we would exhaust all our appeals,” Rogers told The Patriot Ledger newspaper. “We did that. They don’t want us, so we don’t want to be part of them.”
Sunday and religious holiday services were conducted at the church by non-clergy, with communion distributed from hosts the occupiers said were consecrated by an anonymous, sympathetic priest.
Occupiers turned the back of the church into sleeping quarters and a makeshift kitchen. One after another they unfailingly replaced each other throughout the day and night, seven days a week.
Calling themselves the “Friends of Saint Frances,” the group raised money from donations, fund-raisers and bake sales to keep the vigil going, replacing the furnace when it died and repairing the roof when it leaked.
The last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court followed years of legal wrangling with the archdiocese in church tribunals, including appeals to the pope, over efforts to claim the church property even though all but a small group of the parishioners had left for other parishes.
The occupiers argued the church property, valued at $2.2 million, belonged to them as parishioners and that the main reason for closing it was to sell the property to help pay victims of the archdiocese’s pedophile priest scandal.
The archdiocese didn’t disagree it needed the money, but contended that wasn’t the reason for the closing. It said falling attendance, fewer priests and nearby Catholic parishes led to the decision.
More importantly, it held the title to the church and the surrounding two acres of land – the key factor in the civil courts saying the archdiocese could do whatever it pleased with the property. Church officials have announced plans to sell it.