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Fifth of parish groups reject closing

Move signals might of affluent churches

One-fifth of the clusters of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston say they are unwilling or unable to recommend any of their member churches for closure, despite instructions from Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley to do so.

A comprehensive Globe review of the work of the 80 clusters of parishes throughout Eastern Massachusetts found that many priests and laypeople, particularly in affluent, fast-growing suburbs, are balking at the notion that any parish in their area should close.

The recommendations pose a challenge to O'Malley, who has pledged that poor people will not be disproportionately affected by the large number of parish closings he plans to announce in May. They also signal unhappiness with the process O'Malley set up to decide which churches to close, as scores of parishes try to find ways around shutting their churches down, such as using deacons and laypeople to help run parishes. Each of the clusters is supposed to recommend parishes for closing by Monday. But the inability of many clusters to recommend any closings reflects the reality that many of the parishes in more affluent communities are stronger, in terms of money and people, than parishes in the region's cities and inner-ring suburbs.

The archdiocese is not distributing a list of the cluster recommendations, which will first go to two layers of regional administrators before arriving at chancery, and some priests are refusing to reveal their suggestions until this weekend. But a team of Globe reporters interviewed priests, laypeople, and local officials throughout the sprawling archdiocese this week, and has identified about 60 parishes that are being recommended for possible closure.

Among the findings:

* A significant minority of clusters -- at least 16, representing about one-fifth of the archdiocese's churches -- are not recommending any closings. In some cases the group will argue that the archdiocese should allow more parishes to stay open by using deacons and laypeople to oversee churches and share priests.

* Some clusters, particularly those in suburban areas, are arguing that none of their parishes should close because there is only one parish per town in their area; others contend they should be spared because of anticipated growth, in some cases driven by the expected closure of parishes in nearby urban clusters.

* Urban clusters are recommending multiple parish closings, apparently in recognition of the fact that the area's older cities, such as Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Lowell, Newton, and Quincy, have a high density of Catholic churches and a declining population of Catholic churchgoers. Many of the urban parishes are financially struggling and are in aging buildings.

* In several areas, including Brockton, Charlestown, Milton, Winchester, and the Canton-Sharon-Stoughton area, clusters are recommending that the archdiocese consider closing the parishes with concentrations of poor people, ethnic minorities, or foreign-born residents, again posing a challenge to O'Malley's pledge to protect those populations. In most cases, these parishes also are the weakest or smallest. For example, in Newton, the cluster is expected to recommend the closure of St. Philip Neri, one of the smallest parishes in that city but also the headquarters of the archdiocese's Korean community.   Continued...

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