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Police remove protesters, but battle for parish continues.

LOWELL, Mass. - In the end, dissident parishioners at St Joseph's Church in Worcester didn't have to be dragged out of the church, which they had vowed was the only way they would leave. They walked out hand in hand, escorted by police. The 13-month occupation of St. Joseph's had finally ended.

The round-the-clock vigil at St. Joseph's began when Bishop Timothy Harrington of Worcester decided to shut down the church, saying needed repairs would be too expensive. On the final day, June 22, the police chief told the protesters that they were "showing God's spirit." Then came the eviction. Some of the officers cried as they led out the 40 occupiers, who sang hymns and wore purple ribbons, the liturgical color of mourning.

Ousted from the church by court order, parishioners say they are not about to give up. They have moved the battle onto the sidewalk, holding evening services outside the brick church built by French-Canadian immigrants in the 1920s. They plan to go on appealing their case in state courts and in Rome.

Yet few people, outside the 40-member Save St. Joseph's Committee, think a judge will side with the parishioners - who argue that they, not Harrington, own the church property. And even fewer can imagine that the Vatican will take up their cause against the bishop.

Harrington has been magnanimous in victory, as one might expect from a bishop. He says, in fact, that there was "no victory." And he openly laments that the struggle, as pictured in media across the country, has brought scandal and disgrace to the Worcester diocese a year before his intended retirement.

Disarming as he may be, the bishop has not managed to win over the public. People in Worcester, population 150,000, may feel that the protesters have taken themselves too seriously. But a deeper impression has been made by what many saw as the bewildering spectacle of a bishop trying to break a lively spiritual community.

Not too long ago Harrington called St. Joseph's a "strong and vibrant parish." That.was in 1991, when St. Joseph's celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the time, the parish - which began in a previous church building - had 2,600 members. About 400 of them were attending prayer services held by the dissidents on Sunday mornings.

Last year Harrington cited structural problems and the costs of repair in ordering the church closed. He said the diocese didn't have the $690,000 needed for renovations. Parishioners followed by gathering $620,000 in pledges for contributions over the next five years.

As things turned bitter and parishioners, defied Harrington's orders to leave, the numbers coming out of the diocese rolled upward. By the end of the dispute, Harrington said that in order to keep the church open, he needed $1 million, cash in hand - a fantastic sum for a working-class congregation in a city still reeling from recession.

He said the building had become a threat to public safety. Not so, said parishioners. But a Worcester Superior Court judge, who had visited the church twice to view the cracked brick facade, ruled with the bishop. He gave the eviction order.

Now, in a separate case, the parishioners are appealing an October ruling that the bishop, not the laity, own the church building. Ronald Fortin, head of the Save St. Joseph's Committee, summarized the dissident view: :Our parents and grandparents raised the funds to build and maintain the church. The diocese never contributed a penny."

When Fortin and the others walked out, various "religious experts" offered comment on the meaning of it all. There was a general notion that the standoff in Worcester manifested the spirit of Vatican II and new leadership roles demanded by the laity.

Maybe so. But the parishioners have revealed themselves as a fairly traditional-minded group. They haven't called for women or married priests, or even, necessarily, greater roles for the laity. They want to go to Mass and raise their children in the same parish in which they were baptized and married.

The larger questions, if there are any, may be social more than theological. They have to do with average working people who have slipped a step or two down the economic ladder in recent years. As these people find it harder to keep up their old churches, as they did at St. Joseph's, how will the bishops respond? Will the church look away from working-class Worcester and places like it, while raising new parishes in wealthier and more affluent communities?

A group of elderly women, standing outside the church on eviction day, put it another way. The women had joined other parishioners to offer solidarity the retreating occupation force. They wore T-shirts that said, "Save St. Joseph's," and below the slogan, in smaller letters, was the more troubling message, "Since When is Religion a Business?"
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Title Annotation:St. Joseph's Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Author:Bole, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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