Church closures may alter city's rhythm

Boston Archdiocese wants to sell off as many as 80 parishes, in a city with deep church-neighborhood roots.

On paper, in the stark world of timetables and statistics, the Rev. Robert Kennedy knows his parish looks like a shell of its former self.

A diadem of beige brick and limestone, the soaring two-level church of St. Mary's Star of the Sea needs $3 million in maintenance. The school across the street and the rectory next door, circled overhead by a phalanx of lunging seagulls, are modest and in quiet disrepair.

But in this heavily Irish and Italian neighborhood, where cultural life has revolved around the parish for more than a century, he sees more important considerations than bleak finances.

"It is the lived experience of this place that needs to be preserved," says Father Kennedy, an intellectual and raconteur.

Like Kennedy, scores of parishioners and priests in the Boston Archdiocese are bracing for one of the biggest downsizings since the Catholic church was first established here in 1788.

Faced with dwindling finances and dwindling numbers of people in the pews, recently installed Archbishop Sean O'Malley wants to sell off as much as 20 percent of the archdiocese's 400 parishes as part of an urgent restructuring.

Archbishop O'Malley has called on clusters of parishes to recommend Monday which among them should close. St. Mary's is one of the names on the list.

A reduction of this many churches and schools from what is arguably one of Boston's most influential institutions, in one of the nation's most Catholic regions, would likely have a resounding effect on the social and cultural life of the city - and carry larger symbolic overtones.

For more than a century, Boston's parishes have shaped the rhythm of neighborhood life, dictating everything from where children go to school to the route families take to walk their dogs.

"Parishes served as anchors for the neighborhood," says James O'Toole, a history professor at Boston College. "In some neighborhoods today, if you ask someone where they are from, they won't say 'Dorchester,' they'll say 'I live in St. Mark's, or St. Brendan.' "

Portrait of a parish

Situated a few blocks from the ocean, St. Mary's was built in 1910 to accommodate waves of Irish Catholic immigrants who sailed to East Boston from Nova Scotia. The parish was a sanctuary for the families of thousands of roustabouts, salts, and swabs who made their living fitting and unloading rigs in the city's harbor.

In the first half of the 20th century, the average urban parish was a locus of the social and economic life of Boston's neighborhoods as families went there seeking worship, education, social services, and friendship.

"At one point when I was a boy, I knew every house and everyone in the neighborhood because of how close knit the parish was," says Jim Donovan, who was baptized at St. Mary's 83 years ago.

The onset of suburbanization frayed the community's bonds somewhat during the 1950s and '60s. The past decade in particular, church membership here and across much of the region has dropped considerably.

Plummeting attendance, a shortage of clergy, and the recent settlement from the priest sex-abuse scandal, which cost the archdiocese $85 million, prompted Bishop O'Malley to call for the closure of about 80 parishes beginning this spring.

According to the archdiocese's website, the church has already borrowed $135 million to avoid bankruptcy. But as Monday's deadline for closure recommendations approached, many parishes were refusing to move forward with the recommendations.

St. Mary's is one exception. Kennedy recognizes that the archdiocese needs to restructure, and he's willing to cooperate, even if it means "falling on his own sword," as he puts it.

Many of the 2.1 million Catholics in this five-county region have moved to the city's suburbs, making it harder to argue for the continued use of enormous urban parishes like St. Mary's.

The parish's long-term maintenance needs, including an unused second-floor on the church, give the parish an even heavier liability.

Two of East Boston's six other parishes also have been suggested for closure. Yet parishioners and experts say that urban parishes like St. Mary's offer intangible benefits that have long been associated with the character of the Catholic experience in America.

"Face to face meetings among parishioners used to be the norm in Catholic parishes," says Philip Bess, an architecture professor at the University of Notre Dame. "In suburbia, the church has less of a social character."

More than a church

In considering St. Mary's contribution to its community, Kennedy has been inspired by what he calls its "on the ground" life.

After another local parish pushed a significant Brazilian community out of its fold, St. Mary's graciously absorbed the newcomers about six years ago.

The parish now holds mass in Portuguese, as well as English, and funds and staffs one of the broadest English programs for Brazilians in all of Boston.

"We have become the welcome mat for a new generation of immigrants," says Judi Clemens, a nun and part-time minister to Boston's Brazilian community.

For the most part, longtime parishioners here have welcomed the change. St. Mary's, they say, continues to be a lynchpin in the lives of its members.

"St. Mary's holds this community together, even as it changes," says Larry Keegan, a truck driver from East Boston who has attended the parish for more than 20 years. "Losing it would be like getting evicted from your own home."

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