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Parishioners insist they will not be moved.

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Easter morning at St. Joseph's Catholic Church looked much as it would at any other church. Parishioners stopped to say "hello" on the steps and picked up the parish bulletin on their way in. Children dashed through the vestibule in their bright Easter dresses and suits.

But this parish is anything but ordinary. The people of St. Joseph's were not just attending church on that morning. They were occupying it.

No priest was there to say Mass because the bishop of Worcester pulled out the pastor a year ago and decided to shut down the church. In doing so, Bishop Timothy J. Harrington cites structural problems and the cost of repair.

Since then, a core group of parishioners calling itself the "Save St. Joseph's Committee" has defied Harrington's orders and occupied the church around the clock. They have prayed, held catechism classes for children, collected food for the needy and visited sick members of the community -- much of what any other parish does. They also have come together for worship every morning.

In other places, bishops have closed churches and parishioners have protested. But this is said to be the first time the faithful have resisted by taking control. The result has been a legal battle over who owns the church, a war of words between the bishop and his flock and threats by the diocese to have the occupiers removed by force.

"This is my church. I was baptized here and married here, and I'll keep coming here," said Norman Jemme, who was there with his wife, Kathleen, and their four children. They were among 350 people who field the center pews of the 66-year-old church on Easter morning.

Jemme said his grandfather helped build the church, not only with his pennies but with his hands. "My grandfather put in all those crosses," he said, pointing to the Stations of the Cross that line the church.

Kathleen Jemme said, "There's probably more spirit in this parish than you'll find anywhere else. People come here because they want to be here."

After the service, the Jemmes were leaving to catch the 12 o'clock Mass at nearby Notre Dame Des Canadiens, like St. Joseph's, a predominantly French-Canadian parish. The ceremony at St. Joseph's is not an official Mass, so the parishioners are encouraged to go elsewhere to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

Instead of celebrating the Eucharist, which would be illicit without a priest, the congregants are invited up to the altar to say a prayer and "offer themselves to the Lord." Said Ronald Fortin, a leader of Save St. Joseph's who led the service that day: "We would never forget that the Eucharist is necessary for the spiritual sustenance of the people."

These are hardly radical words, but events have led these tradition-minded Catholics to do radical things in a dispute that is, ostensibly, about building repairs and renovation.

In announcing the shutdown, Harrington said $690,000 in repairs were needed to keep the church open. The parishioners responded by gathering $620,000 in pledges for contributions over the next five years.

Now, officials of the diocese say that after a rough winter that battered New England with snowstorms, the church is probably in worse shape than ever. "The truth is that nobody knows how much it's going to cost to fix the church," said the Reverend John W. Barrett, a spokesman for Harrington.

The parishioners disagree, saying they have a few architects and engineers in their corner to vouch for the building's structural integrity.

What is clear is that the struggle has moved past the issue of repairs. This is a bitter standoff in which parishioners have depicted their bishop as an ogre--on the bulletin board in the vestibule--and the bishop has written them off as "dissidents."

In one of his letters to parish leaders, demanding that they leave the property, Harrington said his "rights and responsibilities" as bishop were at stake.

Barrett, his spokesman, pointed out that there were 11 Catholic churches within a square mile of St. Joseph's and 33 in all of Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, with more than 169,000 people. "No one is being deprived of religious services" because of the parish's closing, he said.

The parishioners, however, say they are fighting for the preservation of what Harrington once called a "strong and vibrant parish," founded by their French-Canadian forebears in this working-class community. The bishop made that remark 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.

Because their parents and grandparents built the current church, the parishioners argued in court that they -- neither the diocese nor Harrington -- owned the property. Last October, that argument was rejected by Worcester Superior Court. Also rejected was a separate appeal filed with the Vatican in an attempt to go over Harrington's head.

Now the people of St. Joseph's are appealing a civil court order to evacuate the church. They say they will take the issue through the state courts and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

"We're not quitting. Harrington's done everything to scare us out of here. But we're not moving," said George Belanger, a retired factory worker and member of St. Joseph's.

The diocese, meanwhile, appears ready to have them dragged out whenever the courts flash a green light.

"It's most unfortunate that it's come to that," said Barrett, adding that, with the building in disrepair, public safety is now at issue. "But this is the only choice. This is the decision that they (the parishioners) have made."
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Title Annotation:St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Author:Bole, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 30, 1993
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