BOSTON — Cardinal Sean O'Malley is seeking opinions from Catholics who attended seven closed parishes as he decides whether to sell their former churches, some of which have been occupied in protest for six years.
O'Malley said he's considering starting a process to convert the churches from holy to secular use, he wrote in a letter Thursday.
The "relegation to profane use," if approved by the Vatican, would allow the archdiocese to sell the buildings. If O'Malley decides not to pursue that process at a church, it would remain open as a Catholic building where worship services could conceivably be held.
"I have asked that the former parishioners ... be provided the opportunity to share their thoughts with me," O'Malley wrote.
This "consultation," which is required when an archdiocese is considering converting a church to secular use, begins Friday and ends March 18. Parishioners can give their views online or by mailing in a form.
Since 2004, the number of parishes in the Boston archdiocese has dropped from 357 to 291 as the archdiocese has dealt with financial woes, declining numbers of priests and falling attendance. But some parishioners argued the archdiocese was selling vibrant churches in a money grab to pay for settlements in the clergy sex abuse scandal.
To counter concerns the archdiocese is trying to cash in on any sales, all proceeds will go to a fund for remaining parishes, said the Rev. Richard Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese.
The seven parishes include four with churches whose members refused to leave after their parishes closed during a broad reconfiguration that began in 2004.
After six years, the vigils are more active at some churches than others. In one Scituate church, for instance, regular lay-led worship is held, and parishioners take shifts through the night, often hanging out in a makeshift living room in the front lobby. Vigils are more sporadic at other buildings.
Jon Rogers, one of the Scituate vigil leaders, said he'll give O'Malley his views but won't accept any solution that includes closing his church.
"We're not naive enough to think that there's a magic wand out there and we're going to get back to where we came from," Rogers said. "There's a long road back to recovery, and I think this may be the first step."
Just last month, the Vatican rejected attempts by the nearby Springfield Diocese to convert three church buildings from holy to secular use, though it did back the decisions to close the parishes, broader territorial entities that include churches and other Catholic buildings, such as rectories.
Six of the seven churches in Boston have already filed appeals similar to the ones that succeeded in Springfield, even though O'Malley is still deciding what to do.
"The air of excitement here in Boston is thick," Rogers said, adding the successful Springfield appeals have energized his group.
Erikson said the rulings simply underscore how seriously the archdiocese must take closing and selling a church.
"It is a very dramatic step and one that should and can only be taken with grave reason," he said.
O'Malley is now looking for feedback from former parishioners at four churches that have hosted vigils: St. Francis X. Cabrini in Scituate; Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston; St. James the Great in Wellesley; and St. Therese in Everett.
The other three parishes are St. Jeanne D'Arc in Lowell; Star of the Sea in Quincy; and Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere.
All the parishes had their appeals to reopen rejected last year by the Vatican's highest court.
Church buildings sold by the archdiocese since 2004 have been used by other faiths, for housing and, infamously, by a photographer who quickly flipped the building for a $1.8 million profit. Erikson said the archdiocese would ensure the buildings in any future sales would be used to benefit the community.
Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, which formed to protest the closing, questioned whether O'Malley's coming deliberations would be fair, given that the archdiocese has previously said the closed churches under review wouldn't reopen.
"Doesn't that suggest a pre-ordained result?" he asked.
Spokesman Terry Donilon said he has never intended his past comments to refer to individual church buildings, but to their parishes, which he reiterated Thursday would remain closed.
Erikson said O'Malley hasn't made any decisions in advance, and has proved his responsiveness by reopening some parishes after hearing from the Catholic community.
"We are 100 percent open to and anxious to hear the feedback and the input," he said.