Mass. diocese OKs vigil at closed Catholic church

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Saturday, January 3
ADAMS, Mass. — The Diocese of Springfield is prepared to allow the vigil at the recently closed St. Stanislaus Kostka Church to continue without interference unless safety issues arise.

A spokesman for the bishop also describes the odds that an appeal of the church's closing would be granted by the Vatican as "highly unlikely."

Meanwhile, an organizational meeting of vigil participants on Dec. 29 drew roughly 100 people, and they set up a schedule for round-the-clock vigil shifts in the church for the next two weeks and will continue to extend the schedule as volunteers and time permits.

In August, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell announced that St. Stanislaus and St. Thomas Aquinas would be consolidated in the Notre Dame parish as of Jan. 1 under the new name of Pope John Paul the Great. St. Stan's parishioners quickly appealed the decision to the bishop and the Vatican. McDonnell declined an interview request on Tuesday.

Mark Dupont, spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield, said one of the Vatican departments in Rome — referred to as congregations — would review the parishioners' appeal and the bishop's response.

"The Vatican does not seek to get involved with managing these local decisions," he said. "The Vatican will review this decision with regard to whether there was a fair process in place, whether that was understood, and that we followed that process. If so, then we feel strongly that there would be no grounds to grant the appeal."

The details debated by St. Stan's parishioners — like the seating capacity of the church and its financial health — are not something the Vatican would examine, Dupont said.

He said the Vatican appeal process could take at least several months and could go "beyond a year."

According to Monsignor John Bonzagni, director of pastoral planning for the Diocese of Springfield, the vigil and vehemence displayed by St. Stan's supporters will not result in the bishop changing his mind.

"If they think by vigiling that they'll manage to keep their parish open, that won't work," he said. "But people grieve in different ways, and if this is what they need to do to grieve as part of that process, it's nothing we would interfere with."

"I think we're all just going to wait now for the Vatican to make a determination," Dupont said.

The diocese officially closed St. Stan's during a service Dec. 28. The vigil has been under way since 10 a.m. Friday.

"It would be our strong preference that they not be occupying the church at this time. We don't think it serves any purpose," Dupont said. "But it is our present intent not to take any action against them. These are our brothers and sisters, and as much as they have a very serious disagreement with the bishop and the diocesan community, they are still members of our community."

The diocese closed six churches in Pittsfield over the summer and announced it would close six more in Adams, North Adams, Lanesborough and Housatonic by the end of the year.

But the reaction to the closing of St. Stan's has been the most vehement the diocese has seen, Dupont said.

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"Every closing parish community goes through the suffering and pain of loss," he said. "That being said, I think this has been certainly exceptional in the outcry we have heard regarding this building. But it's important to note they're not losing a parish, they're just losing a building."

Bonzagni said he was "not surprised that they're doing a sit-in, of sorts. Their reaction has been acute from the beginning and we've been trying to work with that. That it's been this virulent has surprised me."

The St. Stan's parishioners join a growing number of Massachusetts Catholics engaging in civil disobedience to prevent the closure of their churches.

According to Peter Borre, one of a group of parishioners fighting church closings in the Boston area known as the Council of Parishes, several of the vigils in Boston have been underway for 50 months or more.

"Not one Boston vigil has collapsed," he said. Of nine vigils begun in Boston, four resulted in church reopenings. The other five are still under way.

He said two vigils in New Orleans that started in October are "still going strong."

Borre said that the multi-year vigils in Boston evolved in phases.

"In Boston, for the first two or three months there was an initial feeling that maybe the archdiocese will sit down and talk with us, so let's hope that we can manage from day-to-day and week-to-week," he said.

'Essentially operating a parish'

But eventually, parishioners come to understand that they are essentially operating a parish.

"They begin to organize social activities, neighborhood services, and liturgy," Borre said, and hold prayer meetings and religious readings, although they are unable to hold a Mass with a priest, he noted.

"This is how a vigil is able to sustain itself," Borre said.

Tuesday afternoon, there were eight parishioners of the closed church bundled in heavy coats, sitting in the pews, chatting or watering the multitude of poinsettias that still adorn the altar.

"We're starting to schedule rosaries and liturgy readings," noted Loretta Rysz-Vinette. "And we have a Bible right here if anyone wants to read to the group or just to themselves."

Another vigil participant, Dola Sciszka-Lipinski, said she didn't know where she would attend Mass; she described herself as a "roamin' Catholic."

"We still believe in the pope," Sciszka-Lipinski said. "And we can wait as long as we need to — we have just as much patience as Rome."


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