- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

WEYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — John Hammel is spending his summer vacation in church.

The 55-year-old has been home just three times in as many days and has spent much of the rest of his time praying, eating and sleeping at St. Albert the Great church, where he has been a parishioner for almost 30 years.

Mr. Hammel, with help from fellow parishioners, is staging a sit-in prayer vigil, hoping to save the church from being closed as part of a massive reconfiguration by the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

“If the bank was trying to come take my home, I wouldn’t walk away from it. I’d do everything in my power to keep it,” Mr. Hammel said. “Well, this is my spiritual home, and I’m not going to let it go.”

Although the archdiocese had planned to close St. Albert’s at noon yesterday, officials have decided to hold off to avoid a confrontation with the parishioners who have stationed themselves there.

“We don’t have any plan right now other than to be patient,” said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for Archbishop Sean O’Malley. “We’re certainly not going to do anything to escalate the situation. As time goes on, we hope to reach a resolution.”

After the last Mass was celebrated at the church Sunday evening, Mr. Hammel and a determined group of about 10 parishioners stayed put. They remained overnight, and since then, others have come by to help.

Signup sheets at the back of the church are filled with the names of more than 200 who have offered to do shifts during the occupation. A hearty few have offered to spend the night, and many others have offered to spend two, three or four hours at a time.

St. Albert’s is on a list of 82 churches to be closed by the Boston archdiocese. Archbishop O’Malley, who was named leader of the nation’s fourth-largest diocese a year ago, cited declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and aging buildings requiring costly renovations.

The clergy sex-abuse scandal, which erupted in Boston in 2002 before spreading to dioceses across the country, exacerbated the archdiocese’s financial problems. Last fall, the archdiocese reached an $85 million agreement to settle lawsuits filed by more than 500 victims of clergy sex abuse.

Parishioners say that St. Albert’s, with 1,600 families, a paid-off mortgage and renovated buildings, fits none of the criteria Archbishop O’Malley said would be used to decide which churches would be shuttered.

“This past Sunday, it was easier to get tickets to Fenway Park than to get a seat at Mass here,” said Joe Rizzo, 43, who has been a parishioner at St. Albert’s for 17 years. “The pews are packed every Sunday,” he said.

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