Last month, a utility worker showed up to cut off the power because the archdiocese hadn’t paid the bill for months, said vigil leader Jon Rogers. Protesters paid a couple hundred dollars to settle the bill, and the power stayed on.
The archdiocese said it was “an administrative error” and they intend to pay going forward, another example of the comparatively light-handed touch with which it’s handled the protests, to date. Rogers is skeptical and calls it another sign the archdiocese is working harder than ever to end the lingering protests.
“They’re not nibbling around the edges, they’re chewing around the edges now,” he said. “We kind of feel like the Alamo.”
The vigils sprung up in 2004 after the archdiocese announced a round of parish closings that reduced the number of parishes from 357 to 291 today. The church blamed falling attendance, a priest shortage and financial problems. But some parishioners refused to leave their churches, saying the church was conducting a fire-sale of vibrant parishes to pay for clergy sex abuse settlements. The church has repeatedly denied that.
Of five Boston-area churches that were still considered in protest vigil, the three most active have seen new threats to their protests in the last seven weeks, include one move that ended the vigil.
Besides not paying the bill in Scituate, the archdiocese in mid-October shut off the heat and water at St. James the Great in Wellesley. And on Oct. 1, it sold St. Jeremiah’s in Framingham to an Eastern Catholic Church diocese, though protesters argued the sale should not proceed. Last week, the new owner changed the locks and on Tuesday the Vatican denied an appeal, ending what remained of its vigil.
“It’s a definite change in tactics,” said Suzanne Hurley, a leader of the St. James protesters.
“It seems like the archdiocese wants to be done with this, and they’re not following official procedures,” said Jackie Lemmerhirt of the St. Jeremiah group.
Boston Archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said the archdiocese was just responding to specific situations at each church. “We haven’t ramped it up,” he said.
Still, he added, the vigils “are going to end. They are going to end hopefully sooner rather than later.”
The vigil protests are united under the Council of Parishes, a group formed to fight parish closings. The key hope for the protesters is arguing that while the archdiocese can shut down the parishes — broad, territorial entities that include various properties and buildings — it hasn’t offered sufficiently “grave” reasons to justify converting the holy church buildings into secular use.
The Vatican this year accepted that argument at dioceses including Allentown, Pa., and Springfield, blocking them from closing and selling buildings, and opening the possibility of worship there.
While Boston protesters argue the archdiocese is increasing pressure on them, other dioceses have been far more aggressive.
In New Orleans, church leaders called in police to break up a vigil in 2009. This year, the Springfield diocese filed a lawsuit against a group of parishioners after it began occupying a church. In Ohio, protest vigils never got started in 2010 and 2009 after police in Cleveland and Akron said any protesters who tried to stay in the churches would be arrested. In New York in 2007, six women were taken away from a church in handcuffs after parishioners there said they wouldn’t leave until the archdiocese reversed plans to close it.
In Boston, the church has passed on numerous chances to shut down the vigils without confrontation. Only the Scituate vigil has kept protesters inside around-the-clock since 2004. Some other buildings have been empty regularly in recent months, including the other two churches in vigil, in East Boston and Everett.
Donilon said it’s not Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s personality to take a more aggressive approach.
“He’s not looking to have conflict with these folks,” he said.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese has paid for landscaping, power and other expenses to keep the churches in shape for sale, or to reopen them if the Vatican says they must, he said.
Donilon said the sale of St. Jeremiah had been planned for months, and the decision to change the buildings locks was the new owner’s.
At the Wellesley church, Donilon said the archdiocese shut off the heat and water on the advice of their insurance company, which determined the equipment could damage the building. Hurley says protesters have installed a portable toilet in the parking lot in Wellesley, will wait out the discomfort, and they expect to win in Rome.
In Scituate, Rogers said that with the other vigils under pressure and flagging, “We’ve turned from the lead sled dog, to the only sled dog,” he said.
The group has regular services and events — including a recent spaghetti supper — and various amenities to make the vigils comfortable, such as a nice TV, puffy recliner, warm beds and Internet access.
But Rogers descends to the church basement to show where the vigil gets real strength: a heating system that the group spent about $20,000 to update so there’s no chance the archdiocese can use its poor condition as a reason to shut it off.
Rogers said even if the Vatican rejects all its appeals to keep the church open, they won’t leave the building.
“It’s ours,” he said. “They just keeping pounding at us. You know what? We’re dug in so deep here, we’re never going to leave.”
Donilon, the archdiocese spokesman, called Rogers stance “outrageous,” and questioned why the Scituate protesters even bothered with a Vatican appeal if they won’t abide with an unfavorable ruling. But he declined to predict how it will all end.
“We have people tell us all the time, ‘You should just end them, rip the band aid off and end them,’” he said. “The reality is we’re not looking for confrontation, we don’t believe anybody is well served by that. And if they feel that’s what they want, then they’re probably going to have to wait.”