Given the fact that the Boston Archdiocese has closed some 60-odd churches in the past seven years, one would think the archdiocese should have the process of closing a church down to a science by now. Not so with the closing of St. Francis of Assisi in East Cambridge, where objectively one could say the archdiocese has bungled the situation and created yet another self-inflicted mess, with likely violations of Canon Law. This one has just not hit the Boston Globe or Boston Herald yet.
The key points to note are as follows:
1. A shortage of priests to staff the parish and/or demographics of the parish/region might make the closing inevitable.
2. Regardless of whether the church has to close, the manner in which this was handled and communicated to parishioners was so bad that it suggests incompetence, disinterest, or both by at least several members of the archdiocesan hierarchy.
3. The fact that no decree has been publicly issued by the archdiocese and the fact that developers were apparently clued-in to the forthcoming sale of the rectory and/or church before parishioners is suggestive of the same sort of corruption, insider deals, and violations of the Code of Canon Law that BCI has been documenting for more than a year.
Details of all of the above follow.
Background and Demographics
St. Francis of Assisi Parish is about 95 years old. It was a former Baptist Church, which, according to an article about the early history found to the right (click to zoom), was bought by Italian Catholics and converted to a Catholic Church in 1917. It is an Italian national parish and has been overseen by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception, OFM, throughout the years. The most recent pastor has been Fr. Norbert DeAmato, O.F.M.
BCI was told the following by a parishioner, attorney Maria Elena Saccoccio, who has given us permission to tell her story with her name. We have edited slightly without changing meaning, just for clarity for those not familiar with the details:
Without any notice, St. Francis of Assisi of East Cambridge summoned select parishioners for a meeting on Wednesday night, November 16. There were three priests present. Chairing the meeting was Fr. Walter Carreiro of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Cambridge. Fr. John Tackney of Sacred Heart in Cambridge was also present, as was Fr. Richard Donovan, OFM, who was temporarily placed at St. Francis after our pastor Fr. Norbert suddenly became ill.
It was announced unceremoniously that St. Francis would be closed. Father Walter chaired the meeting. We were consistently stifled in any comments that challenged in any way the decision on closure or the lack of prior notice. One parishioner was actually accused of being racist when she made a facial expression not compatible with what Father Walter expected. Her displeasure had nothing to do with racism. The church we are to be merged with has just about all Masses in Portuguese and we are not Portuguese. One parishioner asked about the closure date, and each priest denied any knowledge whatsoever. When pressed further as to whether or not we would be open in 2013, Father Carriero stated “no.” Pressed further by the same parishioner that they somehow did have a closure date, the priests remained silent.
Another parishioner addressed the changing demographics of the area…When an elderly parishioner returned to the topic of closure date, I made an off the cuff remark that it would close once a developer made an offer to the Archdiocese. To say that Father Carriero bellowed at me would be an understatement. He was a bully and questioned my right to even comment, stating “How dare you say that–you do not have any personal knowledge;” and on and on and on. I maintained my position and was supported by another parishioner as well. I reiterated my position matching the tenor of Father Carreiro’s voice and stated “In my opinion, the church will be sold when a developer approaches the archdiocese to buy it.” Fr. Carreiro pressed further for the basis of my opinion and I stated “Do you really think the archdiocese is just going to keep this property in perpetuity?” Further, I explained that the basis of my opinion is that I am a lawyer and I read, plain and simple.
Another parishioner was chastised when he suggested that at City Hall Council meetings people get to speak for 2-3 minutes and we should do so here, given the gravity of the news. Father Richard said this is not City Hall and no one gets to speak. He was supported by Father Carreiro. It was too late for anything to be done. The Franciscans did not have the bodies to send to oversee the parish and the Archdiocese made the decision. It was a fait accompli.
The coffers (and they are substantial since they contain the proceeds of the parochial school from years ago) would be transferred to the St. Anthony of Padua (Portuguese) Church. Note, we are much closer to Sacred Heart, only three blocks away, and most of our parishioners will clearly go there since everything is in English and they have already extended themselves countless times for the convenience of our parish.
This meeting was botched. I was receptive at first and realize that St. Anthony’s is a poor parish and could use the money. Fathers Carreiro and Richard Donovan were bullies. Fr. Donovan took up precious time complaining to us at the Wednesday night meeting that he had to change 16 light bulbs and we just did not realize how time consuming these things are. Father Tackney was subdued and quiet throughout the meeting. His parish (Sacred Heart) will inherit the work but not the wealth.
What a travesty and what a good way to lose Roman Catholics. I was “coming home” to what?
No direct explanation was ever given to the parishioners for why the parish would be closing.
BCI did some of our own digging. When we called the parish a week ago today and asked the priest who answered the phone about rumors the church was closing, after a pause, we were told by him, “No, but the Mass schedule is changing,” and the changes would be announced by Fr. Walter (of St. Anthony of Padua) during last weekend’s Masses. Hours later, Fr. Walter did announce the church would be closing within a year, and he also announced a consolidated Mass schedule for the three parishes–St. Francis of Assisi, Sacred Heart, and St. Anthony.
Mismanagement by the Archdiocese
The mismanagement of this situation is almost beyond words. We are so perturbed we can only write about this by posing questions:
- Why was the meeting not scheduled such that regional Bishop Hennessey could be present for the meeting and announcement to the parish? Based on his record this year, BCI is going to start referring to him as the “invisible auxiliary.”
- Why was the cabinet official responsible for pastoral planning, Fr. David Couturier OFM Cap, not present for the meetings?
- Why was Fr. Walter Carreiro–a fine, honest devout priest, who confers the sacraments fluently in Portuguese, but who is known for being brutally blunt–allowed to chair the meeting instead of just being asked to sit quietly and listen?
- Why was the pastorally skilled Fr. Jack Tackney–who has welcomed multiple closed parishes over the past decade or so and who has hosted St. Francis’ religious ed program activities in the past –not chosen to chair the meeting?
- Why has no canonical decree to suppress or merge St. Francis been publicly issued?
- What exactly will become of the $1.1. million in cash assets of St. Francis (from the prior sale of the school building and parish savings)? And what will become of the cash generated from the sale of the St. Francis properties? Will the assets go to the designated “welcoming” parish, St. Anthony (Portuguese) where many St. Francis parishioners do not plan to attend, while Sacred Heart, which actually does the work of welcoming the St. Francis parishioners gets nothing? Why is that the pastorally correct move? Or will the archdiocese try to grab some of the cash as well?
- Why was at least one developer already asking about plans to sell the rectory at St. Francis BEFORE parishioners were notified the parish was closing? Was it Chancellor Jim McDonough or someone from his office who leaked this information and tipped the developer?
- Will Vicar General Msgr. Deeley order the new excessively-paid $160K/year Director of IT, Stephen McDevitt, to cease efforts requested by Chancellor McDonough to determine who is behind BCI and instead begin an email investigation within the archdiocese to determine who leaked information about the planned closing of St. Francis to a developer before parishioners were informed and before any canonical decrees were issued?
How should this have happened? It seems to BCI that Fr. David Couturier, both by his cabinet position and him being a Franciscan, should have joined with Bishop Hennessey, Fr. Carreiro, Fr. Jack Tackney, and Fr. Donovan to sit with the St Francis parish council and finance council (if indeed those bodies exist and actually meet) and explain the situation–namely, that the Franciscans need to pull back and the sacramental activity in that part of Cambridge is already spread over a number of parishes. (None of which, incidentally, has any parking). They should have spoken for two minutes each, and then listened.
It seems reasonable that after that, they should have scheduled another meeting for all parishioners with Fr. Tackney and Fr. Carreiro. (Fr. Donovan is leaving December 1). The priests should have agreed in advance that Fr. Jack Tackney would decide how the meeting would run, and that he would be the voice of the presbyterate, except to answer questions about why the Franciscans are leaving. The wizards at the Pastoral Center should have sent a clear proposal to the second meeting, through a letter from Cardinal O’Malley or Bishop Hennessey, outlining how the assets and liabilities would be treated, and to ask where the people saw themselves going. They should have asked for comments. This is free advice from outside the Pastoral Center on what SHOULD have done.
Instead, the Boston Archdiocese has taken an important pastoral opportunity to minister effectively to faithful Catholics and bungled it. Along the way, the evidence that a developer was aware this property was becoming available also points to a likely violation of Canon Law.
Where to From Here
BCI is not in a position to determine if the parish is sustainable for the long-term, pastorally and practically. (Projections of Catholics coming along with condos have not necessarily come to pass elsewhere). But, it does not take a Ph.D. in Pastoral Psychology or a MacArthur Award to realize that the onus fell squarely on Bishop Hennessey and Fr. Couturier to meet with the people, along with the pastors of adjacent churches. Whether or not the parish can or should remain open is a decision for Cardinal O’Malley, after reviewing all of the relevant information and having heard all parties. UPDATE: Bishop Hennessey was attending the USCCB fall meeting out-of-state on Nov. 16, but for him and the cabinet head in charge of pastoral planning to not be available for a meeting announcing the closing of the parish was a bad move both procedurally and pastorally. They failed at what should have been an uncomplicated, clear execution of their ministries and ministerial duties. And whomever leaked word to a developer that the St Francis rectory or church were going to up for sale should start preparing either their letter of resignation or a really good explanation of why they think that leak was not a violation of Canon Law.
What to do now? Vicar General Msgr. Deeley should probably call a little meeting on Monday to ask a) why Bishop Hennessey and Fr. Couturier abdicated their responsibilities and b) how exactly a developer came to learn of the property potentially being up for sale. Bishop Hennessey and Fr. Couturier need to visit the parish and beg the forgiveness of the parishioners for their sins of omission, and start over again. And this time, they need to LISTEN, in person, and heed the wisdom of those whom they serve. Oh yeah, and whatever happens in a next meeting, let Fr. Jack Tackney do the presiding, thinking and the talking!