St. Catherine of Siena is a red brick church with arches for doorways, high vaulted ceilings covered with elaborate murals, an ornately carved marble altar, large stained glass windows and larger-than-life statues of saints.
Occupying a small city block, the St. Catherine complex contains three other red brick buildings: a rectory, a three-story school building and a community center.
For 115 years St. Catherine’s has served as one of three Catholic parishes in Charlestown, a 1-mile-square island connected to Boston by bridges and city government, and little else. Home to the U.S.S. Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown is bounded by the Mystic and Charles rivers and Boston Harbor.
At one time, the 15,000 people who called Charlestown home proudly wore the nickname “Townies” and were pleased to be insular. The members of this strong community were almost entirely Catholic, most of them Irish-American.
Residents are often seen sporting T-shirts or sweatshirts with the words “Charlestown” or “Townie” above the heart, topped by a small Irish flag.
These days, many can also be seen wearing T-shirts with the name St. Catherine of Siena and a little blue ribbon, signifying their support for keeping their parish open. Last spring the Archbishop ordered St. Catherine’s to close, while allowing Charlestown’s other two churches to remain open. Communicants at the bottom of the hill don’t like the idea. They’re fighting back in true Townie style.
During the past 30 years, Vatican II changed the Church and gentrification changed Charlestown’s neighborhoods. Most of them anyway. But at the bottom of Bunker Hill where St. Catherine’s resides, the geography is dominated by a sprawling 1,000-unit low-income housing project. Most of St. Catherine’s parishioners live in the “projects” and are poor. The other two churches in town serve a more prosperous population. Fortunately for St. Catherine’s finances, the former Navy Yard that marks the parish’s other boundary was converted to upscale housing, lending a few better-off Catholics to the parish.
“Where will I go if they close our church?” mused a lifelong communicant of St. Catherine’s outside the church at a prayer vigil October 2. Then she sighed, “I don’t know if I will go anywhere.”
This woman in her sixties perfectly represents the traditional St. Catherine’s parishioner: Irish-American, blue-collar, born and raised Catholic in Charlestown. She’s a proud “Townie,” a proud Catholic, and someone who followed the dictates of the Church all her life without question. Until now. Threatened with the closing of her church, she is hurt and angry.
A few years ago, going nowhere would have been an unthinkable alternative for a devout communicant, but many Boston area Catholics are angry. They have been battered by bad news for three years, starting with January 2002’s staggering revelations of widespread child sexual abuse by Boston priests.
Soon after, they heard equally startling news that Church officials had known about and covered up the abuse for years. A year of rising anger among the laity ended with the resignation of Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law.
The final blow was administered last spring by Law’s replacement, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, when he announced the Archdiocese would close 82 of its 357 churches. More than 20 have shut their doors already with little public objection. But 10 churches — including St. Catherine’s — are fighting back, using various methods to avoid closure, including sit-ins and legal action through canon or civil law.
“Certainly this church should not close. It’s as simple as that,” said Dorothy Kennedy of Natick, a steering committee member of the Boston area chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a worldwide group of concerned Catholics formed in response to the sexual abuse crisis. Kennedy traveled to Charlestown for an afternoon Mass and prayer vigil to show support for St. Catherine’s.
“This parish provides a stable force in the community, bringing together the diverse populations in the housing project. It would be very sad if it closed,” added Kennedy. “This parish is what the Catholic Church should be. I’m from a family of immigrants from Kerry, so I really think this is important because there’s a large immigrant population here.”
Parishioners so far have resorted only to publicity, including petitions to the Church hierarchy, public prayer vigils and a title search to see if the founding covenant restricts the building’s use to a Catholic church. But those who know Charlestown aren’t counting out St. Catherine’s just yet.
The Irish-American heritage is long and strong at St. Catherine’s. Bunker Hill Street marks the high point in town, but the granite obelisk of Bunker Hill Monument sits on the smaller Breed’s Hill, where the misnamed Revolutionary War battle really occurred. Over the years, former rooming houses and apartment houses around the monument, mostly outside of St. Catherine’s parish, were convened to upscale single-family homes.
St. Catherine’s is the most working-class parish and historically the poorest. Once the projects housed large Catholic families, mostly Irish-Americans with a scattering of Italian-Americans. Now they are also home to newer immigrant populations: Caribbean Hispanic and Vietnamese Catholics who sit side by side at Mass with old-time Townies.
Townies have a well-deserved reputation for being tough, feisty and opposed to change. In the late ’60s they stopped the bulldozers of Boston’s urban redevelopment effort. In the ’70s, they unsuccessfully but vociferously opposed the “forced busing” mandated by a federal judge to integrate Boston’s public schools. In the ’80s, Townies also halted Boston’s planned development of a corner building site where a community garden had sprouted. The garden still flourishes.
“We’re the poster child for what a church should be,” says outspoken, ebullient pastor, Fr. Robert J. Bowers, 42, who has revitalized a sluggish parish that had shrinking attendance during his four-year tenure.
St. Catherine’s is now solvent, self-sufficient, has taken no money from the Archdiocese for three years, has a healthy bank account, and serves a diverse, predominantly poor population — the very people Archbishop O’Malley promised to protect during the closures. Just three years ago, extensive renovations restored the church to its former beauty, with improvements to accommodate changing parish needs.
St. Catherine’s is the only Charlestown parish to offer community services such as a food pantry, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a youth center, a Spanish Mass and English as a Second Language classes, available to all members of the swelling immigrant population which includes Somali Muslims and Chinese Buddhists.
Many find the decision to close St. Catherine’s odd, since the church in no way fits the criteria for closure announced by Church officials: crumbling facilities, dwindling attendance and an economic burden to the Archdiocese.
The congregations of St. Francis de Sales and St. Mary’s, the two Charlestown churches not slated for closing, serve almost entirely white congregations. Fr. Bowers said 96 percent of his parishioners say they will refuse to attend either church because they won’t feel welcome, especially the minorities.
Neither provides any of St. Catherine’s community services, nor has either offered to continue any of them. Unlike St. Catherine’s, the other two no longer own all their buildings. One has only a church left, and the other, a church with a small convent converted to a rectory. Their rectories and schools were closed, sold or converted to other uses. St. Catherine’s was the last to close its grammar school, Charlestown Catholic, two years ago.
Only half of Charlestown’s 15,000 population is nominally Catholic and only 10 percent, or 1,500 are practicing Catholics who attend Mass. Regulars at St. Catherine’s number 800 fiercely loyal communicants.
Judy Burton is typical. She volunteers in the office three days a week, she trains eucharistic ministers, altar servers, funeral altar servers and performs those functions herself, as well as teaching Confraternity Christian Doctrine (CCD) and “whatever else is asked of me.” A parish resident for 50 years, her three children graduated from St. Catherine’s.
“I’m absolutely, positively devastated,” said Burton. “I’m disappointed with the hierarchy and just hoping we make it.”
“We have wonderful volunteers here,” said Judy Powers Evers. She was married at St. Catherine’s. Her brothers and sisters went to the grammar school and her parents were buried from the church, as she had hoped to be.
“I take an elderly woman to Mass every week, and I asked her if I could take her to the last Mass, if we close,” said Evers. “She said `No.’ She couldn’t go to the last Mass. It’s ripping the heart out of us.”
One of the other churches reports a congregation of 300, so simple math says St. Catherine’s has the largest congregation. The Archdiocese created “clusters” charged with choosing which churches to close. Each parish in the Charlestown “cluster” had five votes. The vote to close St. Catherine’s was 9-6.
Some hint darkly that it’s a land grab, that St. Catherine’s represents the best piece of real estate of the three parishes, since it still owns all its buildings, which are in good repair and cover a tidy, rectangular city block. Some believe sale of the real estate will be used to cover payments to the hundreds of abuse victims, although the Archdiocese says insurance and sales of other property has already paid for the $85 million settlement and denies that real estate is the issue.
Catholics take action
Determined Catholics passionate about their parishes are rebelling all around the Archdiocese. At St. Albert the Great in Weymouth and St. Anselm Church in Sudbury parishioners are staging sit-ins, refusing to leave their churches, intending to prevent their closing. Representatives of both parishes showed up to support St. Catherine’s at a Mass and prayer vigil held October 2.
In his sermon at Mass attended by more than 200 people prior to the vigil, Rev. George Williams, Fr. Bowers’ assistant, said, “The thing I learned here as a deacon and a priest, is that Townies are no cowards…so it’s far from hopeless.” A lector read a litany that included a prayer asking that the “Archbishop be inspired to re-envision the Church in Boston.”
Hundreds of supporters assembled in a Hayes Square park across from the church after Mass, where Fr. Bowers brandished a stick with marshmallows, calling it “the universal symbol of togetherness.”
“My family is a good old Irish Catholic family. When the Bowers and the Kellys get together for family reunions in Green Harbor (Marshfield, Massachusetts), all 125 of us, we roast marshmallows.
“If we only carry the fire of unconditional love…whether we’re angry with a neighbor or a bishop, we can work it out…seek out love, and stand in the light of Jesus Christ only. We are now to become armed — with marshmallows. Something that says we are Catholics, believers, we are together, and we will always carry love. Only one thing will save our church, St. Catherine’s, and it’s love.”
“This (prayer vigil) is life-giving,” said Margaret Crann, who with her twin sister, Anna, graduated from St. Catherine’s Grammar School in 1955. Both followed in the footsteps of their teachers, became Sisters of St. Joseph and work together in another part of Boston.
“His gut and God”
When their Spanish-speaking priest left, Fr. Bowers asked some of St. Catherine’s Hispanic teens to teach him Spanish so he could say a Spanish Mass. An activist by nature, he was one of 58 priests who signed a letter calling for Cardinal Law’s resignation, then called on parishioners to cancel subscriptions to The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, when they ran columns criticizing those priests.
The pastor also serves as president of the Chernobyl Children’s Project USA, a non-profit group that brings sick children to Massachusetts each summer from areas of Ukraine and Belarus contaminated by radioactive fallout in a 1986 nuclear-reactor accident. He serves on the board of Por Cristo, a non-profit organization that provides medical services in Latin America. He was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from his alma mater, Boston College, for his work on behalf of children.
Bowers and parishioners have beseeched the Archbishop to visit the parish to see the work being done there, but he has not. No firm closure deadline had been issued by mid-October, but Bowers was told it could come sometime between November 1 and January 1.
“The Archbishop should come and see the place. That’s fundamental to solving the problem, but I don’t think he will,” said Fr. Bowers. “We don’t understand why he won’t come.
“We’re the parish in Charlestown doing the best. We’re not a substandard parish,” said Bowers. “We want the Archbishop to reverse his decision completely. We want him to understand he’s ill-advised. We want him to rely on his gut and God, not his advisers.” ♦