At St. Peter's, high anxiety about future

As rumor mills go, St. Peter's Parish is no different than any other in this age of church closings and parochial school consolidations. So when the 7:30 mass was taken off the weekly schedule, and the church bulletin called the faithful together for a meeting this Monday - mere weeks after the final graduating class left St. Peter's clutching diplomas and shedding tears -the wildfire rumor that the 164-year-old church's days were also numbered was inevitable.

"The last thing we want to do is close St. Peter's Church," said regional Bishop Robert Hennessey, seeking to dampen the flames as the Monday meeting opened in the cafeteria of the old St. Peter's School. "If we do close the church, I will be the first to tell you."

Right: A statue of St. Peter stands in the sanctuary of the church that bears his name on Bowdoin Street. Photo by Pete Stidman

Despite the reassurance, Rev. Richard Conway, a tough-talking interim administrator who came to St. Peter's in May, took the crowd through a brief digital slide show explaining the church's dire financial predicament.

Conway comes to Dorchester from St. Margaret's Church in Brockton, one of 13 whose closure was announced in 2004. That heavily Cape-Verdean congregation worshipped in a church that needed $1.2 million in repairs, until it was condemned.

Now, at St. Peter's, the church needs $4 million in renovations "just to bring it up to code," said Conway, and the parish is already deep in debt.

He compared St. Peter's to Holy Family near Uphams Corner, which rents St. Kevin's convent out to Mass Inc., has the Pine Street Inn paying the heating bill as part of a rental fee for using the basement church as a soup kitchen, and will potentially rent St. Kevin's School to a new tenant. They're "ahead of the game," he said.

St. Peter's, he added, could potentially rent out its own school and convent, but the funds still wouldn't cover the cost of renovating the church. Nevertheless, outside parties have already shown interest in both buildings, potentially bringing in hundreds of thousands in rent money.

Moving on, Conway juxtaposed Dorchester's 10 parishes and 16 priests, by his own count, to Brockton's 4 parishes and 4 priests. The population of the two areas, he said, was similar at around 100,000.

The presentation, short on details, culminated in a series of "proposals" that derived from a May 13 meeting of local priests, known as the Vicariate. The ideas rest on the basic assumption that six of Dorchester's parishes should "collaborate" by staggering mass times, pulling together language groups across the parishes into one or two masses each, and even pooling priests and other services. Record-keeping and church secretaries would also move to one location, instead of six.

The proposed collaboration could include St. Ann's, St. Mark's, St. Peter's, Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Ambrose, and Holy Family.

Opening up the floor to questions released a flood of pent up emotion. A mix of old-school Boston Irish, African-American and newer Cape Verdean and Caribbean immigrant speakers spoke in defense of the church and asked how they might move forward to save it.

"There was no done deal. I do not have the authority to close down the church," said Conway heatedly, after one member of the church accused him of previously saying the archdiocese had already made up its mind. "They're not going to put $4 million into the building... That's what I said."

"If you make things difficult they will be difficult," said parishioner Anna Gomes, asking that the archdiocese allow the congregation to try and turn things around. "You have to have faith. With our kids, our violence, all the things going on right now, we need this church."

John Walsh, a neighborhood resident, asked whether the church could once again host Vietnamese worshippers, a congregation that was taken away in a 2004 reconfiguration. At one time, some familiar with the parish have said, Vietnamese-Americans were the "life-blood of the church," volunteering to complete repairs when needed.

A number of churchgoers presented possible solutions. Nancy Lawton asked if the congregation could apply for grants to save the church as a historic landmark, to which Hennessey said no.

"That's done through the archdiocese, the chancellor signs it and the cardinal approves," he said.

To the question of whether they could mount a capital campaign for the renovation, Hennessey answered:

"I can't answer that question right now. In the gospel it says if you can't build a building and you try to, you're in worse shape than before."

To the idea that maybe the suburban churches - the construction of which urban parishes helped fund long ago - could help fund a re-habilitation, Hennessey said the church already uses surpluses to make low-interest loans, of the kind St. Peter's has already taken out.

Asked again after the meeting why a capital campaign wouldn't make sense, particularly with heavy-hitting alumni such as national politico Michael Whouley and local developer Joe Corcoran keen on keeping St. Peter's open, Conway said:

"That's the problem. [The] 2010 [Initiative] is already going after them for the money for the schools."

Collections from the church, he added, are hardly adequate to pay wages for the two nuns he has on staff. "Eleven-hundred a week? What the hell are we going to do with that?"

Faced with the lack of solutions, several parishioners expressed frustration, particularly in response to a comment Conway made about high foreclosure and unemployment rates in the neighborhood.

"That was very bad news to close the school. I couldn't believe the kids crying at graduation," said Maria Barbosa. "This is St. Peter's Church, the rock. I know it will stay. If you want to know, I am under-employed. And there is a mortgage to pay. But I'm not going to lose my house and I'm not going to lose my church. Do not underestimate the poor, because we built this."

As each consecutive speech became more emotional, Hennessey moved to end the meeting, joking that when he put on his jacket, he didn't realize the room wouldn't be air-conditioned."Everybody came here to this meeting to do something, but they don't have answers," said Daniel Barbosa on his way down the stairwell afterward. "I don't see no hope or no plan. All they showed us was a number. A number doesn't fix a place or fix this building."

This isn't the first time St. Peter's parishioners have faced these same financial woes. In 2006 a similar meeting prompted the same church closing fears. Since then Historic Boston Inc. granted the parish a $34,000 steeples grant to perform some emergency repairs, of which only $11,000 has been expended, according to the organization. That funding was a mere drop in the bucket. But according to Jillian Adams of HBI's Steeples Project, they have already raised $514,000 more in funding to do the renovations.

"And that's without a capital campaign," said Adams. "The archdiocese would have to approve a capital campaign."

According to Adams, the fund-raising is possible. She offers the example of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, which just raised $3 million in a campaign with a congregation of 200. St. Peter's has closer to 500 in the pews weekly, according to Conway's figures.

Another hidden silver lining on the cloud over the parish could be a recent bid placed by the Compass School in Jamaica Plain to lease the St. Peter School. At least one member of the archdiocese familiar with the bid said it "has a chance." A move to St. Peter's would allow Compass to expand.

"I'm very interested in moving there," said Compass executive director John Lydon. "It keeps us in the inner city, which we've been in for a long time."

Unlike charter schools, which the archdiocese has ruled out in the past as competitors to the new Pope John Paul II Academy, Compass is focused on special and remedial education for urban children.

Potential developers have been toured through the St. Peter's Convent as well. The Missionary Fransiscan Sisters, which have inhabited the convent and volunteered in the neighborhood, are already on the lookout for a new home as a result.

"We have our feelers out," said Sister Margretta Flanagan, who said she wishes they could stay in the area. "This neighborhood gets such a bad rap. Everybody wants the same thing, peace. They want their children safe."