Days after the Board of Selectmen heard a review of possible uses for the St. James The Great Church property on Rte. 9, members of a years-long vigil to save the church from closing still hoped for a happy ending.
Mary Kearns of Newton has been helping to hold the vigil – keeping someone at the church every day - since the parish was threatened with closure in 2004 by the Archdiocese of Boston.
That development came in the wake of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal and subsequent lawsuits, which damaged both the church's reputation and treasury. Shortly after, the Archdiocese of Boston decided to close nine churches, one of them St. James.
Kearns' church, Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton, was also on the list, at first, but was spared after the parishioners of St. James began their vigil on Oct. 31, 2004. Instead of leaving at the end of services that night, a large portion of the parish refused to leave the church after what was to be its final night.
"I think the Diocese just didn't want any other churches in vigil," Kearns said, "I think that this parish going into vigil kind of saved us."
So Kearns and her husband joined the vigil at St. James, which at the time boasted about 150 dedicated parish members.
Now, she said, that number has shrunk to about 40. "Some people have moved away, some people have died or just dropped out," Kearns said.
But a few years ago, when the parish rallied to hold Christmas services, about 900 people showed up. This shows there's interest in the parish that will make it successful, if it can be saved, she said.
St. James is the youngest of the town's three Catholic parishes (the other two are St. Paul's and St. John's). It was established in the 1950s, and in 2004, there were 300 children enrolled in its religious education program and the church was active and financially secure.
"So, they were a little upset to be closed," Kearns said.
She said news that the church might be turned into office buildings or even playing field space, though broken gently to members of the parish, is still tough to take. "It's painful to think that if it was sold, and Wellesley bought it," she said, that it would be torn down and converted, no longer a church.
"It's premature," said Frank Chin, a vigil holder for three years and member of St. James. "I think the town has more urgent things to worry about."
Chin has been attending St. James since the 1960s. His parents, Stanley and Lilly, had their services there when they died in 1988 and 2001 respectively. He said the church is also in the wrong, punishing the community for the church's own mistakes. "It's not fair. Not justice," Chin said.
"It's faith," said Kearns when asked why she is dedicated to saving part of a system that she feels is acting unfairly. "The church as a whole hasn't let us down. It's run by human beings, so they're going to make mistakes." She and her fellow Catholics wouldn't leave the church because of its leaders any more than most people would leave the United States because of its president, she said. "There's still good in the church," Kearns said.
But, she realizes the vigil's resolution might be coming with some resignation.
"After five years, people are more practical. It may happen. It may not. Who can tell?" Kearns said.
Bill Bannon, spokesman for the Council of Parishes, an organization of concerned Catholics in support of parishes threatened with closure, said there has been no word yet about the Vatican's decision, except that one was made in the church's Apostolic Signatura – the Catholic version of the Supreme Court - on May 7.
The Vatican has taken as long as six years to announce such decisions, Bannon said. However, Bannon said he expects this time the announcement might be a little more prompt – he's getting a lot of calls from people interested in the situation.
When the decision is announced, Bannon said, it will be done in writing, in Latin, and the lawyer representing St. James, Carlo Gullo, will have to travel personally to the Apostolic Signatura office, in Rome, to get it. "They won't send an e-mail," Bannon said. Once it's translated, Bannon will be among the first to know what it says.