Grief, shock initial reactions to closings

For months, priests, parishioners and parish employees have awaited the announcement of parish closings with trepidation, wondering whether the parish where they live, work and worship would close, but nothing could prepare them for the moment of decision. For many, May 25 was a rude awakening, bringing with it shock, anger and sadness.

A majority of priests and employees at the dozens of parishes slated for closure had no words to express the emotions they were feeling. For some, it was too difficult to confront the fact that the parish that has been at the center of their lives will no longer be there to welcome them in joyous times or in times of mourning.

Some pastors at parishes scheduled to close kept their doors open all day so parishioners could filter in to express their concerns about the closures. Other pastors at the closing parishes, such as St. Alphonsus Parish in Beverly, held meetings for parishioners to ask questions and prayer services in the evening to deal with their grief spiritually.

In a press conference May 25, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley recognized the importance many place on their parish. Parish closings mean “the loss of a spiritual home, the place where so much time and resources have been invested, the house where so many important moments in people’s lives, from birth to death, have taken place,” he said. “I wish there was some way that all of these wonderful houses of life and prayer could remain open and alive and full. But there is not.”

While many agreed that not every one of the roughly 357 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston could remain open, no one wanted their own church to be among the ones closed.

Parishioners at St. Anselm Parish in Sudbury were surprised to learn that their parish would close, in part because they had begun hosting Masses for members of the Deaf Catholic community over a year ago.

"We thought that [the presence of the deaf community] would come to the attention of the archdiocese," said a church employee at St. Anselm. "We're a vibrant parish" even without the deaf apostolate celebrating here."

"We're small in numbers, but we're financially sound and have no debt," the employee continued.

The pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Gloucester, Father Myron F. Bullock, has similar feelings. “I knew it was possible that our small parish could close,” but did not think it would ultimately happen, he said. “I’m not happy about it, but I feel much worse for the people” of the parish.

Along with feelings of shock, sadness and bewilderment came anger.

James Imprescia, music director at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish in Newton, who said he will lose his job once the parish closes, was deeply upset.

"I'm very distressed and very angry," he stated.

“The entire process was done incorrectly,” without enough pastoral or lay input, he said.

Father James J. McGowan, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Belmont, anticipated the possibility that the parish would close, but never expected that both his parish and its closest neighboring parish, Sacred Heart in Watertown, would be shuttered. “I expected one or the other, but not both,” he said. “Everyone is very sad.”

"The process was too quick," Father McGowan continued. "The process and the closings are going to be fast and furious."

Others pastors were more certain their parishes would be on the final closure list. Priests in parishes set to close cited factors such as decreasing Mass attendance and the high cost of needed repairs as some of the reasons they feel their parishes were closed.

Father Richard C. Conway, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Brockton, said he “expected” his parish to close because, for the past several months he has had to celebrate Masses in a nearby school gymnasium because the city deemed the church building unsafe.

He “was o.k.” with the decision, he said, until he thought about the number and location of the churches that would remain open. “How many churches do you need to serve the people of Newton or Milton?” he wondered, saying that he anticipated the number of church closures to be much higher. “I don’t know the answer, but I’m just wondering whether people [involved] were giving into pressure. I thought it was going to be more parishes, so where did they cut back?”

Father Michael J. Harkins, administrator at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Cambridge, said, “I’m terribly disappointed, but not entirely surprised.” He said that this year was a “very difficult year” because of low Mass attendance and excessive repairs needed for the church.

Father Harkins also said parishioners he spoke with on May 25 also had some inkling that their church would close, but were still saddened. “You have that head-and-heart dichotomy, and there will always be that tension,” he said. “Even with those who understand the statistics at this parish and the costs, it’s still terribly hard.”

While the pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish believes his parish is one of “the most beautiful buildings in East Boston,” Father Robert R. Kennedy was also keenly aware of how many repairs the church needed — approximately $2.5 million in deferred maintenance.

"We are an incarnational people," he said. "When we lose sacred spaces we certainly will feel the pain, but we need to put our hand to the plow and not look back ... because we need to plow a straight line."

Father Thomas E. Keyes, administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Revere, which will close, expressed a similar sentiment.

"I'm sad, but I'm personally not surprised," said Father Keyes, who read the FedEx letter from the archdiocese with some of his congregation when it arrived during the 9 a.m. Mass May 25. Closing parishes "is not going to be easy for anybody, but it had to be done."

The end result of this process “is hopeful, because parishes that are reconfigured hopefully should be stronger and be able to do things that they could not before,” he stated, echoing the words of Archbishop O’Malley: “As one church is closed, another church is waiting to welcome its people to a place which can become more alive, more spirit-filled, and more able to proclaim the good news of our faith because of the talents, treasure and time its new members will bring.”