Breaking Boston's Heart
by Andrew Walsh
Church bells pealed joyfully all over eastern Massachusetts as Federal
Express trucks made their rounds on the morning of Tuesday, May 25. On board
were overnight letters from Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley addressed to the 357
parish pastors in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. About 80 percent
contained the welcome news the recipient’s parish had dodged a bullet, and
would not be closed. Many of those pastors responded spontaneously by
setting their bells a-ringing.
But 70 of the letters contained bad news: Sixty of the parishes would be
closed outright within a few months and an additional 10 would be merged to
create five new parishes. In those places, a blizzard of local news coverage
reported, the pastoral reaction was more often weeping. Within a few weeks
the total of closed and consolidated parishes inched above 80. Further, the
“realignment” came on top of about 50 parish closings that had taken place
since the mid-1980s under O’Malley’s predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.
The retrenchment—the largest in the history of the American Catholic
church—is a stark measure of change in overwhelmingly Catholic New England,
where almost 70 percent of those who claim some religious identity say they
are Catholic. But even the persistence of numbers like that cannot hide the
damage done by decades of population movement to the suburbs, falling Mass
attendance, the dramatic aging and shrinkage of the priesthood, and the
awesome damage done by the clerical sexual abuse scandal that broke in 2001.
Kathy McCabe’s story, headlined “Sadness Grips Closed Churches,” in the
May 30 Boston Globe, captured the sense of the occasion. Many letters
arrived during the celebration of daily Mass and were read aloud to the
small Tuesday congregations. That happened at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in
Revere, a working class suburb north of Boston. When the FedEx man arrived,
the Rev. Thomas Keyes told the Globe, “I was consecrating the
“Keyes couldn’t leave the altar. The Fed Ex worker left the church. No
one was at the rectory to sign for the special delivery from Archbishop Sean
P. O’Malley. Keyes looked at Nick Giacobbe, who was seated at the back of
the church with his wife Marie. ‘I said, “Nick. Go get the letter from the
“‘I met the guy outside,’ recalled Giacobbe, 72. ‘I said to him. “I think
I know what you have, and I really don’t want to take it.” I did take it…but
I almost didn’t want to come in with it. This is not an easy time for
“Keyes read the letter to 30 parishioners after communion. ‘After careful
consideration, and an extensive process and review, I am writing to inform
you that I have decided the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish must close,’ O’Malley
wrote. The group then wept together about the closing of their 99 year-old
parish. A few then went outside to pray the rosary in the parish garden. ‘We
had decided we would do that, whatever the decision was,’ said Giacobbe. ‘We
wanted strength….We were bawling in our church.’”
That same week, Naida Eugenie Snipas discovered that she would be the
last woman to be married in St. Peter’s Church, a Lithuanian parish in South
Boston. “It’s heartbreaking,” she told Peter Gelzinis of the Boston
Herald on May 28. “The thought of losing my church has left me with a
big knot in my stomach. I don’t want to be the last wedding held at St.
Peter’s. I want my friends and so many others I know to be married here.
Someday I want my children to be baptized here….For me, St. Peter’s has
always been more than a church. It is the heart of my community, a place
where I always felt so at home.”
For most journalists, especially reporters for the dozen daily newspapers
that circulate inside the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Boston, this was
mostly a story about parish closings and their impact on the hyper-local
culture of New England. A survey of headlines gives a sense of the basic
take: “Heartbreak for South Shore Catholics,” in the Quincy Patriot
Ledger; “Church Closings Rip at Parishioners’ Psyches,” in the Lowell
Sun; and “Losing More Than Mass, Church Gateway for Immigrants,” in the
No one was surprised that O’Malley, in office just a few months when he
announced the consolidation initiative, should decide to close parishes. It
was widely acknowledged that population movement to the suburbs had left New
England’s aging manufacturing centers with a large number of lightly
attended parishes, often with aging and expensive parish plants.
“In some older neighborhoods, a one-mile walk can take you past four of
five Catholic churches, O’Malley said during a talk on Boston Catholic
Television on February 5. “We just can’t sustain that kind of reduplication.
Under the best of circumstances it was impractical. In our present situation
it is impossible.”
But hard to swallow. In Massachusetts, parishes still define
neighborhoods and—almost unbelievably in contemporary America—many people in
and around Boston still walk to church.
“I appreciate people’s attachment to an individual church building. There
are so many familiar associations with a particular parish,” O’Malley told a
gathering of priests on December 15, when he announced a comprehensive
process designed to prune the archdiocese in order to create healthier
parishes. “It’s a sad moment, but unfortunately, it’s a very necessary one,”
the Associated Press quoted him on December 15.
The archbishop had prepared the way for the process of closing parishes
by first attempting to wrap up the lingering institutional difficulties
associated with the devastating scandal that brought down Cardinal Law. In
September, O’Malley agreed to a $90 million dollar settlement of more 500
lawsuits, selling off the large campus where the archbishop’s mansion was
located to Boston College for more than $100 million. He then announced that
the parish-closing initiative had nothing to do with the financial fallout
of the scandal.
Michael Paulson, the Globe’s religion reporter found widespread
agreement among priests at the December meeting that a large number of
closings were unavoidable. “It’s a bit scary because I don’t know what the
future holds,” said the Rev. David P. O’Donnell, pastor of St. Colman of
Cloyne Church in Brockton. “But I do believe, ultimately, as a result of
reconfiguration, the parishes will be stronger.”
In the same story, Paulson quoted the Rev. Austin H. Fleming, pastor of
Our Lady Help of Christians parish in West Concord: “This very definitely
needs to happen. The dwindling number of priests and the demographic changes
in the archdiocese have been going on for a long time, but pastors and
bishops have been afraid to tackle the issue. But I’m concerned because I
don’t know how much substantial input from the grass roots is going to be
possible in the timeline he provides.”
From December to May, journalists were riveted by the process laid down
by O’Malley, who went down in most books as a bold and decisive leader eager
to get painful business done quickly. He was willing to spend the political
capital earned for his work cleaning up the abuse crisis. “I shall not
abdicate my responsibility to make the hard decisions. Since coming to
Boston I’ve had to make the hardest decisions of my life,” O’Malley told his
priests at the December 15 meeting.
In other Catholic dioceses, parish closing debates had extended for
years, but O’Malley said that the parishes to be closed would be selected
within a few months and terminated by the end of 2004. He then ordered
priests and laity in 80 clusters of parishes ranging from three to eight in
number to meet among themselves to recommend which parishes should be axed.
The immediate result was an explosion of anxious but—atypically—very
public discussion about the future of the church. And a parallel explosion
of journalism. Between January and March, there were scores of cluster
meetings across the region, all covered by teams of competing reporters. The
volume of coverage was striking—each of the Globe’s five regional
weekly zoned editions carried a major story about the process. The Globe,
Herald, Lowell Sun, Patriot Ledger, and a handful of
smaller papers all poured their staffs onto the story.
The archdiocese also broke with previous practice and released a great
deal of information about parish life—a third of parishes were running
deficits, and many had much smaller attendance than was the general
impression, especially in the older industrial cities. The annual survey of
attendance at Mass, conducted each year in October, revealed that one in six
Catholics attended Mass in a given week—a figure well below national
averages and significantly below pre-scandal trend lines in the Boston
Initial reaction to O’Malley’s plan was nervous, but supportive. “State
officials hoping to close cherished local institutions like courthouses
should look to the Archdiocese of Boston to see a difficult closure process
done well,” the Herald editorialized on December 23.
Once the cluster meetings began, however, anxieties about the process
surfaced. While many laity were happy to be asked to participate in the
meetings, Kellyanne Mahoney reported in the February 8 Globe that lay
leaders soon grasped the thorny nature of the assignment they had been
handed. “[W]hen they ask you to make a recommendation,” Mary Hogan of St.
William’s Church in the Dorchester section of Boston said, “people are
really being invited to surrender their own or sacrifice somebody else’s
parish to save their own.”
Among the most agitated were public officials, an overwhelming Catholic
group in Massachusetts. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino worried publicly about
the impact of impending parochial school closing on public school costs and
the disappearance of parish-based social services in poor neighborhoods
where Catholic churches are islands of stability.
Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin told the Globe on
December 29 that he “suspected that the archdiocese had already selected the
parishes to be closed. ‘It’s hard to think you can have a true process in
three months,’ said Galvin. ‘I think there’s a list.’”
Others were less diplomatic: “The closure process pits neighbor against
neighbor,” Steve Callahan of Norwood complained in a letter to the Globe
published on February 15. “Cluster voters are voting subjectively on
sacrificial parishes to ensure the survival of their own.” Eventually,
metaphors borrowed from reality television cropped up everywhere. “In an
unseemly scene that is being repeated throughout the Archdiocese of Boston,
parish groups are getting together to basically vote one of their fellow
churches off the island,” Globe reporter Bella English wrote in a
March 7 column in the weekly “Globe South” section.
Indeed, the Globe’s Michael Paulson reported soon afterward that
20 percent of the clusters, especially in suburban areas where churches are
often full, had refused to name parishes for closing. That ploy failed
because O’Malley instructed regional administrators to name parishes for
closing. The clusters eventually named 100 parishes, and archdiocesan
administrators named 37 more to a list to be given final scrutiny.
Reaction at the parishes placed on the list was uniformly bad, and
several priests stepped out of line. “We’re shocked” said the Rev. Lawrence
Rondeau, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Salem, who broke into tears in the
course of an interview with Paulsen on May 7. “We’re very surprised because
the cluster did not vote for us to close. We thought we had a good chance of
On May 10, John Zaremba of the Patriot Ledger reported that
another pastor had denounced the process from the pulpit. “I feel that we
and 36 other churches have been betrayed by the archdiocese,” the Rev. John
Kelly of St. James Church in Stoughton told parishioners at Sunday Mass.
Urging them to write to O’Malley, Kelly said, “We did not have a chance, an
opportunity to present a very valid case. I think that is simply unfair.”
O’Malley dropped the hammer, as he had promised, on May 25—“Judgment
Day,” according to page one of the tabloid Herald. Along with 60
churches to be closed were at least three parish schools. “Please do not
interpret reconfiguration as a defeat,” the archbishop’s public statement
read. “It is rather a necessary reorganization for us to be positioned for
the challenges of the future, so that the church can be present in every
area of the archdiocese with the human and material resources we need to
carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us.”
“The closing of 60 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes is heartbreaking.
And indisputably necessary,” the Herald editorialized May 26.
“O’Malley has set the archdiocese on a course of healing, financially and
spiritually. Accepting these church closings is one of the higher mountains
he will ask Boston-area Catholics to climb.”
The Brockton Enterprise took a tougher stance in an editorial on
May 27 headlined “Church Must Work to Keep Catholics in Fold,” which argued
that the sexual abuse scandal had helped create the conditions the forced
contraction. The editorial also offered, in unusually lyrical terms, some
insight into the way many Catholics feel about their parishes.
“It’s hard to estimate the pain felt by the parishioners whose churches
will be closed. Their churches are, after all, more than assets on a balance
sheet. They are the places where the most profound moments in their lives
have been sanctified—at baptisms, weddings and funerals. They are the source
of cherished memories—of candles burning bright against the darkness at
midnight Mass, of their children dressed in white, receiving their first
Holy Communion, of sipping coffee with friends in the parish hall.”
Massachusetts journalists covered the story of the Boston “realignment”
thoroughly, with a remarkable volume of stories. Virtually no parish was
left without its moment in the sun. And much of the coverage revealed a good
deal about the deep structure of local life, feelings, rituals, and patterns
than is usually the case. But the focus was almost entirely on human
interest stories, not on the big picture.
Given the high level of investment in covering the story, it is striking
that the coverage was so insular, so bound up by the local frame of
reference. It seemed as if Massachusetts journalists could barely conceive
that the Catholic church might organize itself in any way other than its
entrenched local form.
Barely any attention was given to parish closings and processes elsewhere
in America. If that had been done, at least one major theme might have
emerged more clearly. Archbishop O’Malley’s drastic pruning of the
archdiocese aimed to preserve a model of parish life in which priests are
the center of the community, and priests control its life.
In other parts of the country, bishops have either chosen or been obliged
by circumstance to redeploy priests while leaving many parishes in the hands
of teams of lay leaders, nuns, and deacons. In Massachusetts this option was
passed over, virtually without discussion.
Few asked whether it was really necessary to close 20 percent of the
archdiocese’s parishes at one fell swoop. The church’s public rationale was
that falling church attendance and a steep drop in the corps of parish
priests required rapid and drastic action—O’Malley said in his February 5
talk that the number of priests in the archdiocese fell 37 percent between
1988 and that action had to be taken before “priests in their 70s become
priests in their 80s.”
But by the standards of the rest of the country, Boston still has lots of
Catholics, lots of parishes, and even lots of priests.
Somehow, for all involved, it seemed impossible to visualize a viable
Catholic parish where only several hundred attend Mass in a given week.
O’Malley quite openly argued that the reconfiguration had to be pursued
rapidly to adjust the parishes of the archdiocese to the reduced number of
priests available, rather than reconfiguring ministry to staff the parishes.
For example, on May 27 the Globe reported the closing of St.
Bernard Parish in West Newton, with the planned layoff of seven full-time
employees and the reassignment of two priests. The parish was to close
despite weekly attendance at Mass of more that 720 and 200 lifecycle
(baptism, marriage, funeral) sacraments a year. But professional lay
employees were carrying much of the burden of ministry. Ultimately, the
O’Malley model is designed to minimize changes in Catholic parochial life by
creating fewer, bigger parishes.
A Globe editorial on May 27 made the point, but obliquely: “The
fatalistic approach of church leaders dating back to last January is driving
much of the disappointment. Parishioners in many of the affected churches
were eager to discuss ways to save their places of worship, such as lifting
the workload of priests so they could serve more than one parish and
expanding the role of deacons. But the leadership of the archdiocese limited
meaningful lay involvement to just one area—recommendations for closures in
their regions.” Indeed, by the end of the summer there was discernible
resistance in only a dozen of the 82 parishes slated for closing.
For their part, journalists did a poor job explaining the financial
structure of Catholic parishes, and especially failed to address why falling
church attendance created such a sharp financial crisis in the past few
years. Most of the parishes closed had attendance figures far higher than
Protestant, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox congregations in the region that are
regarded as stable and healthy. Parishes with weekend attendance of above
800 were closed—four or five times the size of viable mainline Protestant
The key financial fact is that Catholic parishes rely for their support
almost entirely on money placed in collection trays during Mass. Most other
religious groups do not, relying instead on annual pledges or dues that are
collected whether or not members are in church on a given Sunday. This
reflects the longstanding reality that the Catholic Church has depended on
small contributions from a very large number of people, but also the deep
Catholic sense that membership in the church derives from baptism, and not
from paying dues.
During the summer of 2004, Massachusetts journalists kept busy covering
protests, mourning rituals, and the first large wave of closings, planned
for early September. They also turned their attention to the question of
what the church will do with surplus buildings and how much it expect to
realize from sales of buildings.
As early as May 27, the Globe’s Steven Kirkjian reported that the
entire stock of surplus churches, schools, rectories, convents, and
community centers might fetch $400 million on the hot Massachusetts real
estate market—most of it coming from developers likely to turn them into
condos, condos, and more condos.
That’s a lot of money, even for a strapped organization like the
Archdiocese of Boston. Couldn’t O’Malley have cashed in fewer chips and
saved more parishes?