A Nearly 12-Year-Long Vigil Ends, and a Massachusetts Church Closes

SCITUATE, Mass. — For almost 12 years, the parishioners of St. Frances X. Cabrini have prayed, eaten meals, watched the Super Bowl and even slept in the church, holding a round-the-clock vigil to protest the Archdiocese of Boston’s decision to close it.

They have used detailed sign-up sheets to ensure that at least one person was in the church at all times, had communion wafers secretly consecrated by sympathetic priests, and held weekly services led entirely by lay members of the congregation.

On Sunday, having exhausted their options in Vatican and American courts, the parishioners held their last service, but not without a final act of defiance. A man who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, but was later married, stood at the altar of the deconsecrated church and led services for parishioners who said they intended to break away from the archdiocesan hierarchy and form an independent Catholic church.

“In every revolution, obviously, there are collateral damage and there are casualties,” said Jon Rogers, an organizer of the vigil with his wife, Maryellen. “Our beloved church is one of those casualties.”

The parishioners plan to leave the church by 11:59 p.m. Monday and hold a service next Sunday in a Masonic lodge, a temporary stop while they try to raise money for a building of their own.

In a statement, the archdiocese said it hoped the congregants would join other parishes. “Their sense of loss from the closing of the parish is understandable,” the statement said. “For this reason the archdiocese kept its commitment to allow the appeals process to conclude both in civil and canonical courts.”

With their vigil, the parishioners tapped into a deep well of mistrust after the archdiocese, rocked by a sexual abuse scandal, moved to close dozens of parishes in 2004 — citing a decline in priests and congregants.

“The way the sex abuse scandal was handled pretty clearly shattered the trust that a lot of people had in the hierarchy,” said James O’Toole, a professor of history at Boston College, who added that the vigil had most likely also been motivated by the writings of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, which expanded the role of laypeople in the church.

“It turns out that if you tell the people for 50 years that they are the church, they start to believe it and they start to act on it, and think they have the authority in a way to argue with the hierarchy,” Mr. O’Toole said.

At the time, eight other churches started vigils over their own closures, but St. Frances had the last remaining one. “This community has tested the Vatican canonical system and the U.S. legal system to their highest level,” Peter Borré, a lawyer who has supported closed churches, said to the congregation on Sunday. “Nobody else has done this.”

The archdiocese filed a lawsuit against the parishioners last year, arguing that they were trespassing. In May 2015, a State Superior Court justice ruled against the parishioners, who later appealed to the United States Supreme Court. But this month, justices refused to hear the case, and the congregants agreed to leave — after a final celebration.

The abuse scandal loomed large over the day’s proceedings, and the leader of the service, Terry McDonough, criticized the archdiocese. “The hierarchy has to lead, fall or get out of the way,” he said, adding, “That is the great tragedy: that those who have no children are destroying the spiritual homes of our children.”

But at other times on Sunday, the members sang and clapped. They carried the 11 prayer quilts that had been made to commemorate the vigil — one for each full year — down the aisle, and the service ended with a loud rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

At least 200 people filled the pews for what the church called a “celebration of faith and transition.” Generations of families prayed together in the pews — including the Arnold family, whose triplets, Christian, Scott and Sean, had taken the Friday night vigil shift for most of their young lives.

“We’ve been doing this for 11 years,” said Sean, 17. “So, like, not doing this, what else are we going to do?”

His brother Scott took a moment to consider the question.

“Maybe we’ll take our mother out to a nice dinner,” he said.

For some, the end of the vigil is causing deeply mixed emotions.

“For reasons that I can’t understand, I feel nervous,” Margaret O’Brien, 86, said on Sunday morning. “On the other hand, I’m kind of relieved. We fought the good fight. We did everything we could.”

Ms. O’Brien said she would miss seeing fellow parishioners so often — they regularly handed off shifts to one another — so she planned to convene them at Dunkin’ Donuts.

The vigil has been as much a social outlet as a prayerful one, and the past week was filled with final shifts and goodbyes.

On Friday afternoon, Dee Schmid had the shift from 4 to 6:30 p.m., but a fellow parishioner, Veronica Tutunjian, stopped by to help her fix a hummingbird feeder. Nearby, a sign-up sheet for shifts after the final vigil was blank.

“I feel sad, and everyone who comes in feels sad, but I’m looking forward to a new beginning,” Ms. Schmid said as she left, handing off to Marian MacIsaac, 61, an activities coordinator whose family helped build the church. Ms. MacIsaac lived here for two months when she lost her apartment.

“It has the sweat of my family members in the bricks,” Ms. MacIsaac said. “I had my first communion here. There’s been weddings here. There’s been funerals here.”

Ms. MacIsaac settled into her shift and took out her phone, on which she sometimes plays solitaire to pass the time. As she reflected on the last 12 years, she turned defiant.

“We don’t have to take their pay, pray and obey — we don’t have to obey,” Ms. MacIsaac said. “And we showed that to the world.”