“This was nothing but a war zone,” said 30-year old Sixto Merced to a local Boston newspaper, “Church was the only place that you could go that was safe.” Sixto knows what it’s like to have a second chance at life after having survived the violent streets of his inner-city Roxbury neighborhood. St. Mary of the Angel’s youth group offered him a sense of belonging that kept him from joining the local gangs. In his neighborhood where many youth don’t graduate from high school, Sixto got his diploma and went on to become a neighborhood police officer. Now he and hundreds of other church members are back in the streets, this time struggling to save the life of the church that helped save him and so many others.
The irony is that amidst this urban war zone, the life of the church is threatened, not by the violence of the neighborhood, but by the archdiocese of Boston itself. Archbishop Sean O’Malley (pictured below, right), who replaced Cardinal Bernard Law after the sexual abuse crisis, issued a letter of intent to close 65 parishes in the Archdiocese , including St. Mary’s.
Churches Pay for the Sins of the Fathers
The Boston Archdiocese is not the only diocese facing church closings. A handful of other diocese around the country
have already begun to close churches. This trend threatens to spread throughout the nation in the coming years as the priest shortage continues to worsen, church membership declines and diocese seek funds to pay settlements.
Last year, Boston’s Archdiocese sold the bishop’s mansion to raise the $90 million needed for the sexual abuse settlements. In another time, that money could have been used to fund diocesan programs. Instead, the diocese reserved the gains for the settlements and sought other funding to support its budget. One source of funding, estimated at a recent archdiocesan press conference to be about $400 million, will be the sale of the 65 church properties.
Although some of the 65 churches needed to be closed due to parish debt, the lack of priests, or a decline in church attendance, the news of closure shocked St. Mary’s vibrant, growing community. St. Mary’s receives no funding from the diocese and uses no diocesan priests (two Jesuits staff the parish). Church membership and participation is increasing, with more than half the adults involved in various lay-led committees, outreach ministries, and retreats. The youth minister schedules outings and church-based activities nearly everyday during the summer so as to keep the children safe during school vacation. Parishioners wonder why the archbishop wants to close such a dynamic parish.
Communities Fall Victim, Too
Upon hearing about the closing, church members began a letter writing campaign to the Archbishop to help him understand the church’s vital role in the lives of its parishioners and the surrounding neighborhood. The church has been instrumental in diminishing street violence, creating a food pantry and advocating for affordable housing in the neighborhood where over 30% of the residents live below the poverty line and 16% of adults experience unemployment.
Dr. Paul Farmer , the physician made famous by Tracy Kidder’s novel Mountains Beyond Mountainslived at St. Mary’s parish house in the 1980’s. He counts the church’s poverty-embedded neighborhood as one of his mission sites and wrote a letter urging the Archbishop to keep St. Mary’s open for the sake of its church members and the sake of the neighborhood.
Under pressure from negative newspaper press, the archbishop penned one letter of response to the pastor that restated his intentions to close St. Mary’s. More than 100 letters written by Dr. Farmer, parishioners and community leaders remain unacknowledged.
As the days pass, the hope of salvation grows dim despite parishioners’ and local community members’ attempts to save St. Mary’s with a letter writing campaign, a rally and a recent 24-hour prayer vigil (pictured, right). The vigil concluded with a mass whose gospel reading proclaimed, “the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58).
Indeed, as Christians we are called to follow Jesus with or without a church building, with or without a place to rest our heads. But if the Archbishop closes St. Mary’s, not only will he close a church building, he will close the doors on a community that knows all too well what it means not to have peace, food or a place to rest one’s head. In Boston, another victim is added to the growing list of those harmed by the sexual abuse fallout, as churches are sold and communities put in danger in order to pay for the sins of our Fathers.