- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

WALTHAM, Mass. — His church started in his living room, growing steadily as it moved wherever it found space, from public parks, to a YMCA to a former woodworking shop.

But by 2002, the New Covenant Christian Church of Cambridge was straining the old shop’s walls, and the Rev. Thomas St. Louis knew more room was sorely needed. Then, the financial stress on the Boston Archdiocese provided an opportunity for Mr. St. Louis’ Haitian-American congregation.

Mr. St. Louis’ church now meets at the former St. Joseph Church in Waltham, which was among 44 church buildings shut down as 62 Roman Catholic parishes were dissolved in a broad consolidation in the Boston Archdiocese that began in 2004.

About half of the 26 church properties that have been sold are being used for new housing, while eight were purchased by other churches, including New Covenant, a 400-member evangelical Protestant church.

Now when Mr. St. Louis delivers his sermons in Creole, he is preaching to empty pews that his church has a chance to fill.

“Honestly from my heart, I wish the Catholic Church in Boston and greater Boston never had any problems to force the cardinal to sell those churches, because I know what those churches meant to the parish,” he said.

But one positive result, he said, is “the church could be used again as a church.”

Other churches with strong ethnic identities such as New Covenant’s have found homes in former Catholic properties, including another Haitian congregation that bought St. Peter in Malden. A Serbian Orthodox church bought Immaculate Conception in Cambridge and a Greek Orthodox church bought St. James in Arlington.

Jubilee Christian Church in Boston, one of New England’s largest churches, purchased Our Lady of the Rosary in Stoughton as a satellite for an estimated 2,000 members who live in that area. Another Protestant congregation, Greater Faith Pentecostal Worship Center, bought St. Joseph in Boston’s Hyde Park.

The little-known Swedenborgian church purchased Our Lady Help of Christians in Concord. And a Nazarene congregation bought St. Alphonsus in Danvers.

“Obviously we would have preferred to continue to operate these as Catholic churches,” said Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. But, he added, “in many cases, we have helped other congregations carry on many good works in communities, where they work to benefit people in need.”

The church closings were needed to deal with declining attendance, a priest shortage and money woes brought on in part by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. When the archdiocese put its properties on the market, top price was a priority, but it wasn’t the only factor. Community impact and planned use of the property were also considered.

For example, a proposal for a health care center at St. Boniface in Quincy was nixed because it could have involved counseling for abortion. The property is being used by a YMCA after-school program.

Fourteen of the 26 church buildings sold were slated for housing — ranging from subsidized units to luxury housing. Two other buildings were sold separately to Tufts University and Northeastern University. The former Immaculate Conception in Winchester is a day care center and Asuncion in Lawrence was sold to be used for commercial space.

The archdiocese has completed $62 million in sales of properties put on the market by reconfiguration, and seven church buildings remain on the market.

Among churches not now on the market, 14 are tied up in canonical or legal appeals by parishioners trying to reverse the archdiocese’s decision to shutter them, including five that are still occupied by parishioners angry and hurt over what they say are unjustified closings.

The Rev. Nicholas Kastanas knew there was a lot of pain when parishioners from St. James in Arlington joined members of his Greek Orthodox congregation on a ceremonial, mile-long march from his old building, after his church purchased St. James in late 2005.

But Father Kastanas believes his congregation at St. Athanasius the Great will continue to be a blessing to the area. Since 2001, his church had been standing-room only at services, with 500 or more people squeezing into a space that comfortably held about 330. A tiny parking lot held 30 cars, and crossing a busy road was too harrowing for many would-be worshippers.

Efforts to purchase an adjacent property were continually stymied, but then the St. James property went on the market.

The $6 million purchase bought the church room for as many as 900 congregants, as well as its expanding programs for seniors, youth and social outreach.


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