VOTF holds Mass in response to church closings

The Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, was cold, cloudy and windy on the Boston Common. Yet about 1,000 people — priests, Voice of the Faithful members and other Catholics — braved the chilling weather for a Mass organized by VOTF in response to the archdiocese’s decision to close more than 80 parishes in the coming months.

Four of the five priests concelebrating the Mass were from parishes named for closure:

Father Ronald D. Coyne of St. Albert the Great Parish in Weymouth, Father Robert J. Bowers of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Charlestown, Father Stephen S. Josoma of St. Susanna Parish in Dedham and Father David H. Gill, S.J. of St. Mary of the Angels Parish in Roxbury. Also joining them was Father Patrick J. McLaughlin of St. Joseph Parish in Medford.

Maryetta Dussourd, the mother and aunt of victims of convicted child molester John Geoghan spoke before Mass.

She told worshipers, “I know that you suffer pain and sadness ... I know these pains, but I also know you’re in the greatest Church,” she said.

"It is time to realize that God is more important than buildings," she said. "You haven't lost your faith and you haven't lost each other."

The Mass was meant to “attend to the grieving of all parishes that are closing” and worshipers were encouraged to “stand in solidarity and unity with all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston during this difficult time,” according to an advertisement that ran in the Aug. 6 edition of The Pilot. However, many worshipers were also there to protest the closing of their parishes. They brought signs that read, “Open windows, open hearts. Closed doors?” and “Fire all Bishops. Start American Church.”

From the Kyrie to the remarks before the final prayer, the celebrants, too, took occasion of the Mass to criticize the bishops and the archdiocese’s parish reconfiguration program.

"The Archdiocese of Boston has confused the mission of the Church with the money of the Church," Father Bowers said in his homily. The statement evoked a round of applause from the crowd.

Father Bowers went on to criticize bishops who cite lack of priests, church buildings in need of repairs and low attendance as reasons for closing parishes.

"What we don't have are bishops who have the courage to say 'Why?'" he said.

"Look what we have. We do have each other. ... We have a voice of the faithful, strength, resource and God with us," he continued.

Many parishioners from St. Albert the Great Parish — one of several parishes vowing to appeal the archdiocese’s decision to close their church — wore yellow bumper stickers on their backs that read simply, “Keep St. Albert’s Open.” Parishioner Peg Eberle was one of them.

"We need to stay open," she said. "All of our Masses are absolutely, positively packed."

Eberle and her family moved from St. Louis, Missouri two years ago and had difficulty finding a parish where they felt comfortable, she said. St. Albert’s was “the first parish to welcome us and not just send us collection envelopes,” she said.

Signs bearing the name of each closing parish lined both sides of the walkway leading to the Mass, and closing song was a litany including of the names of the closing churches.

A collection was taken at the Mass, which was to be divided into evenly to support for survivors of clergy abuse, retired clergy and local charities of the type that would have been supported by closing parishes.

The altar was placed on a stage under a blue canopy and decorated with sunflowers and ferns. It stood in the same place Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass during his 1979 visit to Boston. It rained on that day 25 years ago and threatened to again thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Charley.

"Clearly this proves we are not fair weather Catholics. We are all-weather Catholics," said VOTF president Jim Post, speaking to The Pilot following the Mass.

VOTF, a group of lay Catholics based in Newton, was formed in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It now claims 35,000 members nationwide.

"You don't control an organization like this. You help people keep a focus," said Post. "It's been both impressive and humbling."

Father Bowers’ brother, Bill Bowers, came to support his brother and parishioners of closing parishes.

"Some things got said that needed to be said," he said. "The hierarchy of the Church -- whether it be in Boston or internationally -- needs to hear the voice of the laity and needs to abide by that voice."

Parishioners from churches that will remain open also attended the Mass to show their support. Martin O’Connor of County Galway in Ireland attended the Mass to support friends from St. Susanna.

"It hurts me to hear about all the lovely parishes closing up," he said.

"Those of us that aren't closing, it's not like we're not feeling the same anxiety and pain," said Susan Troy, a founding VOTF member from St. John the Evangelist in Wellesley. "We wanted to be in solidarity with them and the best way to do that is the Eucharist."