Bishop Lennon faces parish reeling from closure announcement

EAST BOSTON—Instead of the hymns or the reverent silence that usually emanate from Our Lady of Mount Carmel on a Sunday afternoon, approximately 200 distraught parishioners could be heard voicing their despair, frustration and anger to moderator of the curia, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, about a process, which they claim unfairly resulted in the impending closure of their parish instead of another blocks away.

Bishop Lennon attended the July 18 meeting, which ran about two hours, at the invitation of the pastor Father Francis DeSales Paolo, OFM and parishioners. He began by addressing the work of the East Boston cluster, which many parishioners felt was faulty.

Bishop Lennon said he was “aware that not every cluster ran perfectly.” However, he pointed out, “Well over 50 percent of what the clusters recommended came true.”

The work of the clusters was reviewed by the area vicars, regional bishops, the Central Committee on Reconfiguration, presbyteral council and, ultimately, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley.

Several times during the meeting, parishioners broke into shouts of protest when Bishop Lennon did not answer a question to their liking or clapped when a fellow parishioner vocalized their sentiments. About one-third walked out of the meeting early, some muttering under their breath or rolling their eyes.

Some parishioners told the bishop that they had expected to be excluded from the reconfiguration process because their church is staffed by a religious order. Our Lady of Mount Carmel is an Italian “personal” parish staffed by Franciscan friars.

Bishop Lennon explained that the archdiocese could not exempt parishes staffed by religious priests. He said the archbishop met in January with the provincials of the religious orders present in the archdiocese and asked them if they would accept his decision if any of the parishes they run were to be closed. They all agreed, Bishop Lennon stated.

"If we exempted those parishes from the process and three years from now a provincial said 'We can't staff the parish anymore' the plan we [made] in 2004 is now completely skewed," he continued.

Bishop Lennon also told parishioners that, contrary to a statement made at the meeting, their parish was not financially sound.

"Our Lady of Mount Carmel for a number of years has not been paying all of its bills," he stated. "The provincial has been paying the salaries of the friars because there was no money at Mount Carmel."

Secular Franciscan Georgia Schipani expressed her anger that Mount Carmel would be deconsecrated. She said she objects to the language the archdiocese uses to describe that step in the closing process — “relegate the Church to profane use.”

"The archdiocese wants to evict God," she pointedly told the bishop.

"Salvation is with Jesus Christ not with a church. It's with the Lord," Bishop Lennon emphatically replied. "This church is important and now the archbishop is making a decision, but one should never put a church building in the place of God and that is what we're doing. Let's not lose God for a building."

"I can understand that you are very upset," he continued. "We did not set out to hurt people. It's not like we are trying to ruin the Church. We have given our lives to it."

Many Italian-speaking parishioners said they felt “abandoned” because their Italian Masses may be taken away. They also asked the archdiocese to provide transportation to other parishes because they said some do not drive or cannot walk to another parish.

Bishop Lennon assured them that their needs would be met if and when the archbishop signs the official decree to close the parish. Learning that the decree has not yet been signed consoled some parishioners.

"It gives us hope that the decree has not been signed. We weren't aware of that," said Sabina Taylor, a parishioner. "He gave us hope and I'm ecstatic."

Others were more cautious. “I’m still frightful,” said Elena Conroy. “I’m still going to fight for it.”

"I think a lot of people will lose their faith because they've been hurt," long-time parishioner Judy DiBennedetto stated.

Parishioners asked Bishop Lennon to present their concerns to Archbishop O’Malley. They proposed raising approximately $1.5 million needed to repair the church, if it were to be left open. The pastor also suggested establishing a cultural center that would offer English classes.

After the tense question and answer session, the meeting ended with a standing ovation for Bishop Lennon, after Father Paolo asked those present to recognize the courage of the bishop in making himself available to parishioners.

"I think towards the end of the meeting, Bishop Lennon had an understanding of the feelings of the people," said Father Paolo. "He became very sensitive and he was very patient in answering their questions and he said he would do everything he can for us."