Last week, parishioners at Holyoke’s Mater Dolorosa church ended a round-the-clock vigil they’d been holding there for almost a year.
Mater Dolorosa was one of a number of Catholic churches closed by the Springfield diocese in recent years, in response to financial struggles and an overall decline in the number of priests and churchgoers. Under the diocese’s plan, Mater Dolorosa was closed and its members moved to another Holyoke church, Holy Cross, to create a new Our Lady of the Cross parish.
But a number of Mater Dolorosa parishioners disputed the diocese’s claims about dwindling attendance at the parish and its contention that the church’s steeple is in need of significant, and costly, repairs. Shortly after the final mass was celebrated at Mater Dolorosa last June, the group, calling themselves the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, set up camp in the church, refusing to leave—even when the diocese tried, unsuccessfully, to have them legally evicted. (See “Fighting for Their Parish,” April 12, 2012)
According to Victor Anop, a member of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa and its lawyer, about 150 people have joined the effort, occupying the church in shifts 24 hours a day. The group has also held services, led by lay Eucharistic ministers and lectors, at the church.
The Friends of Mater Dolorosa has appealed the Springfield diocese’s decision to close the church to the Vatican. Recently, the Vatican’s highest court agreed to hear the appeal, on the condition that the group end its vigil, which the members agreed to do. The court also ordered the diocese to neither sell nor destroy the church building while the case is pending.
“It was gratifying to see the good will of the occupants of Mater Dolorosa Church in following the Vatican directive to leave the building,” Bishop Timothy McDonnell said in a statement. “The Diocese of Springfield will continue to act in compliance with church law and these same recent directives. I would hope that we might all unite at the table of the Lord, setting aside our differences in our greater love for our God.”
But the Friends of Mater Dolorosa are still wary; in a press release, Anop expressed concerns about whether the diocese will comply with the Vatican’s conditions and also called for it to release financial information that the parishioners have been seeking.
“The Mater Dolorosa parishioners have also voted to continue their prayer vigil services at another site, meet regularly to communicate important information, and plan activities to continue the wonderful new and Polish Catholic community of Mater Dolorosa,” Anop said. “I congratulate the parishioners of Mater Dolorosa who have been brought together by prayer [and] belief, worked so hard to save their church and continue bringing attention to the undemocratic closing of 70 Springfield diocese churches, hurting and dividing hundreds of thousands [of] Western Massachusetts Catholics.”