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Catholics occupying imperiled churches 24-7

Protesters who have been occupying five  Catholic churches in Massachusetts for four years say they still have hope that officials will reopen the churches, closed due to falling attendance.
Church Vigils
Harry Whelan is one of 35 parishioners taking part in a vigil at St. Therese Catholic Church in Everett, Mass. Whelan says since the church's boiler broke in October, temperatures outside the church are warmer than inside the brick building. Stephan Savoia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The thermometer inside St. Therese Church reads a toe-numbing 36 degrees. A pail of water used for hand-washing has frozen under a sink that, like the heating system, hasn't worked in months. In the sanctuary, four women in coats, hats and gloves huddle as they pray the rosary, their breath visible in the cold.

"We don't have faith in the archdiocese. I think we have faith in God," said Sheila O'Brien, 63.

She and the others have been occupying St. Therese as part of a string of sit-ins going on round-the-clock for more than four years at five Roman Catholic churches closed by the Boston Archdiocese. The protesters are hoping to force the archdiocese — or the Vatican — to reopen the churches.

The archdiocese has said it won't remove any of the protesters by force. It has not cut off the electricity in any of the churches and has kept the heat and water on in all of them except St. Therese, where the archdiocese is refusing to pay $50,000 to fix a boiler.

The archdiocese has given no sign it will reopen any of the churches, but the parishioners are resolute.

"We must be a thorn in their side," said 71-year-old Lee Pratto, who sleeps on a cot in the chapel at St. Therese.

The archdiocese announced the closings nearly five years ago, citing falling attendance, a priest shortage and money problems. Amid bitter protests, the number of parishes has been reduced from 357 to 292 in a process so agonizing that Cardinal Sean O'Malley said at one point: "At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job."

Round-the-clock sit-ins
Many of those taking part in the occupation suspect their churches are being sold off to pay the archdiocese's $85 million settlement in the priest sex scandal. The archdiocese denies it, saying the settlement was covered by insurance and the sale of other church property.

The vigils started in August 2004 at a Weymouth church where parishioners refused to leave after what was supposed to be the final Mass. Nine churches in all have been occupied; four of them were eventually reopened after the archdiocese relented.

Similar vigils have taken place elsewhere in the U.S. — including New York City, Kansas and Ohio — but not every diocese has tolerated the dissent. In New Orleans in January, church leaders called in police after two months, and they broke down a door and arrested two protesters as they cleared out two churches.

Sister Marian Batho, an archdiocesan liaison to the Boston area's occupied churches, said O'Malley wouldn't consider that approach: "Cardinal Sean is a man of peace."

O'Malley wants to wait until all the appeals are played out, possibly this spring, and only then approach those refusing to leave, Batho said. "We would hope we could resolve this in a respectful way," she said.

'We own this place'
The vigils are billed as 24 hour-a-day affairs, but some parishioners acknowledge there have been short gaps when no one was occupying a building. The archdiocese does not have the buildings under surveillance, and had no one there to reclaim the churches.

The archdiocese said it is keeping the electricity and heat on to maintain the buildings and run the security systems that keep the properties safe.

In Everett, a blue-collar community just outside Boston, 35 parishioners keep an eye on St. Therese, praying, chatting and keeping moving to stay warm. Five take turns spending the evening. Staving off the cold requires layers of clothing, hand and feet warmers, and a thick sleeping bag, Pratto said.

Jon Rogers, who has taken part in the occupation of St. Frances X. Cabrini church in the town of Scituate, said: "We own this place. They don't, and we're keeping it."

Rogers said he believes the archdiocese targeted his church for closing because of its valuable 30 acres of coastal real estate south of Boston.

"It's your church until they basically decide they need to liquidate the assets to pay off the sins of their past, not ours," he said.

At the occupied churches — which also include Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston, St. Jeremiah in Framingham and St. James the Great in Wellesley — the protests long ago settled into a routine. Parishioners pass time paying bills, doing puzzles and praying, sometimes holding services in which they use Communion wafers blessed by sympathetic priests.

In Scituate, a sign-up sheet in the lobby keeps the shifts organized and staffed by a rotating group of about 100. Across the lobby, a recliner is propped in front of a TV. Two sleeping areas are set up on either side of the sanctuary. One has bunk beds for when families stay, as well as a wireless Internet connection. A smaller room that was once a confessional has a TV and full-size bed.

The occupation "is a necessity in our lives," Rogers said. "Because without your faith, what do you have?"