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Challenge to parish ownership faces setback

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Parishioners from St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, suing the Archdiocese of Boston for ownership of their parish, have been denied their motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the archdiocese from selling the church and its assets saying the court found “no substantial possibility of success on the merits of the case.” The motion was originally filed on Aug. 27.

At a hearing on Sept. 8, parishioners argued that they owned the church and the over $200,000 in parish accounts, alleging that under chapter 67, sections 44 and 45 of Massachusetts General Law the archdiocese was simply “holding funds and property for the benefit of the parish of St. Albert the Great,” according to court documents.

In his Sept. 15 ruling, Superior Court Justice Thomas E. Connolly affirmed that the Archbishop of Boston is a “corporation sole” and not organized under chapter 67 section 44 and 45.

“St. Albert the Great’s Church and Parish (including its real estate and its personality) is an unincorporated subdivision of the Archdiocese of Boston,” the ruling said.

In a significant footnote, the judge added that while “the Court fully appreciates the hurt and loss suffered by the plaintiffs … this case involves Archbishop Seán O’Malley making the difficult decision to close their parish.”

Therefore, the note states, the court is “simply prohibited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from involving itself in such a dispute between members of the Church.”

“In light of this [decision], we hope to enter into conversation with the people of the former parish to end the occupation of the church,” archdiocesan spokesman Father Christopher Coyne said in a statement.

“In addition, the Archdiocese of Boston remains committed to following church procedures regarding canonical appeals,” the statement continued.

Reached by phone, St. Albert finance committee chairman and plaintiff Don Gustafson said that despite the setback the court has not ruled on the case yet, only the preliminary injunction. Parishioners plan to continue forward with their legal efforts to preserve their parish, he said.

The ruling comes two weeks after the parishioners began what they call an “eternal vigil,” taking shifts occupying the church to prevent the archdiocese from shuttering it.

Following the parish’s Sept. 1 closing Mass, contractors for the archdiocese would have normally entered the church, changed the locks and secured the property, but so far the archdiocese has not formally requested that parishioners leave the church.

“We’ve been very cautious. We don’t want to exasperate the situation,” Father Coyne said.

Even in the face of other parishes following suit, the archdiocese plans to be patient and is in no hurry to “grab buildings,” said Father Coyne.

St. Anselm Parish in Sudbury also began a similar vigil on Sept. 12 to prevent their parishes closure on Sept. 15. They claim they will wait at the church until the archdiocese is willing to talk about the reasons for closing.

Father Coyne said a decree, stating the reasons for closure, was issued to the parish and it was the administrator’s responsibility to communicate that to his people.

Many parishioners said they thought St. Anselm’s was on the right track for dealing with financial difficulty. They have a half-time priest, Father John P. Fitzpatrick, who is the administrator at the church, and many of the activities are run by the laity.

Addressing those occupying the church Sept. 14 Father Fitzpatrick, said he had received a call from Bishop Richard Lennon but that the call seemed to only be about paperwork.

Father Fitzpatrick said the archdiocese still planned to pick up his keys on Sept. 15, but he did not see the point since over 50 keys are in the possession of parishioners and the archdiocese plans to change the locks anyway.

“I think I’ll throw my keys in the dumpster,” he said. His remarks were met with a round of applause from parishioners.

According to Father Fitzpatrick, Bishop Lennon did not accept his invitation to visit St. Anselm’s but did offer to meet four or five parishioners at the chancery. Parishioners made it clear that they did not feel this was an acceptable alternative.

Kevin Driscoll, a parishioner for 15 years who has taught confirmation for 10 years, has been taking the 6:00 a.m. slot everyday for the vigil. His wife, Jeannine, and one of his two sons have slept in the parish three nights in a row.

 “If they sell this church, if they take this community, I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said.

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