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Boston Archdiocese, Catholic Parishioners Battle Over Church Eviction

When walking into the front vestibule of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in the seaside town of Scituate, Mass., it doesn't look or sound like the average church.

"What the hell are you doing?" an actor from The Young and the Restless says on a big-screen TV with two recliners set up in front of it. They're all arranged right next to a stained-glass window.

Nancy Shilts is one of more than 100 parishioners who have taken turns holding vigil in the church, night and day, since the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced nearly 11 years ago that it wanted to close the church.

"This is our church, we've always been told this is our church, and we'll do whatever it takes to protect our church."

"We have a TV here," she says. "We have a puzzle here. We have a kitchen so that we can eat."

The archdiocese went to court this week to try to evict the group of parishioners.

St. Frances wasn't alone: The archdiocese said in 2004 it was closing nearly a quarter of its churches as a result of declining attendance, too few priests, and financial problems that were compounded by settlements from the clergy sex-abuse scandal, a crisis that spread across the country and globe.

Parishioners from nine of the churches targeted by the archdiocese protested by going into vigil; St. Frances is the last one still going. The church is on about 30 acres near the ocean, and the group says the archdiocese's decision to sell the property was just about money.

Parishioner Maryellen Rogers says this isn't just real estate — the church is her spiritual home.

"You just can't take a faith community and say, 'You can go here or there' — it breaks up a community," she says. "This is our church, we've always been told this is our church, and we'll do whatever it takes to protect our church."

Thomas Groome, who directs The Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College, says it comes down to the question of what "ownership" really means.

"The Catholic Church traditionally has taught its people that they belong to a particular parish," he says. "And that a particular parish belongs to them."

In Scituate, they're taking that quite literally.

"We put a bed in a long time ago because the aero mattresses kept on losing air," says Jon Rogers, Maryellen's husband. He says that they're OK with the diocese selling off most of the 30 acres but that they've told the archbishop they want to keep the building.

"Open us up as a fully functioning parish, even consider selling back our church," he says. "But you know something — take the 3,000 registered parishioners and what at one point was a vibrant community, and let's negotiate something that, basically, you can live with and we can live with. And his response is dragging me into court."

A spokesman for the archbishop declined to comment because of the pending court case. The archdiocese said earlier it only brought the case because the Vatican had rejected all the parishioners' appeals. The parishioners say they still have one more pending.

In court this week, there wasn't much question over whom the property legally belongs to. The first witness was a real estate lawyer who explained that the archdiocese is listed on the deed. But the parishioners haven't given up hope that the judge will throw the case out, deciding it's really an ecclesiastical dispute.

For now, the parishioners are not saying whether they will leave the church if the civil case doesn't go their way.

Copyright 2015 WGBH

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.