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11-year protest in Catholic church faces moment of reckoning

Barbara Nappa, of Scituate, Mass., left, sits with Jon Rogers during a vigil at the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate, Mass., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Parishioners occupying a closed Catholic church for nearly 11 years may be at their end. A state judge has ordered the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini, which has occupied the church day and night since October 2004, to vacate by May 29. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

SCITUATE, Mass. (AP) — Outfitted with Wi-Fi, cable television, snacks and comfortable armchairs, the vestibule at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Roman Catholic Church could easily be mistaken for someone’s living room these days, if not for the brilliant stained glass window that takes up an entire wall.

The confessional area and sacristy, where priests vestments are traditionally kept, have been converted into cozy sleeping quarters complete with beds and nightstands.

Ten large, handmade “protest” quilts hang on the walls of the vaulted-roof sanctuary — one for each full year a group of rebel occupants have been taking turns squatting night and day in this long-closed Roman Catholic church.

“I find it beautiful,” says Nancy Shilts, an 82-year-old former parishioner, as she settled in recently for her regular afternoon shift. “Mostly, it’s quiet. I go for a walk around the inside of the church, so that I get my exercise. I watch TV. I do a lot of praying.”

The 11-year protest by Shilts and others, which has already spanned the tenure of three popes, may be nearing an end.

A state judge has ordered the protesters to vacate by as early as Friday. Protesters said this past Friday that they had gotten a temporary reprieve, but the Boston archdiocese, which is expected to oppose such a delay, has declined to comment.

Organizers say they have no intention of leaving until the Boston archdiocese restores their parish’s standing or sells them the building outright. They say they are prepared to be arrested as trespassers, if necessary.

“This is our spiritual home,” says Jon Rogers, a lead organizer. “We’ve been taught for years that this is our church and that it’s our responsibility to care for it.”

The impasse places the Boston archdiocese, which took the group to court to push them out, in an uncomfortable position. Images of peaceful former parishioners being led away in handcuffs would bring unwelcome attention to an archdiocese still recovering from a clergy sex abuse scandal that, to a degree, began in Boston before exploding globally.

The archdiocese has declined to say what it would do if protesters refuse to leave. Spokesman Terrence Donilon said it just wants the protesters to respect legal decisions and end their vigil.

“We understand the difficulty one faces when they lose their parish,” he said in a statement.

The protest’s longevity is a testament to the group’s faith and determination, if nothing else, said Thomas Groome, a Boston College theology professor. Theirs is the last of six church occupations launched in 2004, when the archdiocese shuttered 70 worship houses.

“In a sense, the church is reaping what it sowed, because they taught these people they belong to a particular parish and that a particular parish belongs to them,” Groome said.

Rogers said the protest is also about taking a stand against the sex abuse scandal, despite the archdiocese’s best efforts to separate the issues.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church was among the churches where priests abused boys, he said. It’s also a valuable asset. The 30 largely undeveloped acres are worth over $4 million, the group said.

“What the archdiocese has done is sell off our beloved churches to replenish coffers depleted by the sexual abuse scandal,” Rogers said. “We’ve drawn a line in the sand and said this needs to stop now. How many communities need to be destroyed?”

The archdiocese says its finances have improved since the tumultuous early 2000s. But plummeting attendance and a priest shortage remain intractable.

Rogers, the protesters’ leader, worries their window is closing. He’s not sure how much more the group can withstand financially, especially if the archdiocese moves to have them fined each day for trespassing.

Rogers estimates protesters — thanks to donations and their own personal fortunes — have spent more than $80,000 on legal bills and tens of thousands more on building upkeep. The archdiocese still pays for the electricity and heat, as well as the occasional landscaping and snow plowing.

“Anything is possible,” Rogers says. “We don’t want them to come arrest us. The last place I personally want to be is in jail. But we’re prepared. We’re ready.”

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