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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Parish closings prompt women to quilt their memories

Gloucester, Mass.

The large number of church closings in the Boston archdiocese has evoked a variety of responses from area Catholics: candlelight vigils, letters of protest, church occupations and at least two lawsuits. But here in the Cape Ann island community 60 miles north of Boston, where four churches are scheduled to close as part of a merger that will create a single new parish, a handful of women are coping with the change by assembling a quilt. Rich in Catholic symbols, it emphasizes the faith tradition that binds their church communities together.

The churches of St. Ann, Sacred Heart and St. Peter in Gloucester and St. Joachim in Rockport will officially close in January, and the parishes will merge to become Holy Family Parish.

“This is the quilt of all the churches merging,” observed a Cape Ann Catholic as she watched the women one evening in early September piecing fabric in the basement hall of St. Ann Parish. The women have come here every other Tuesday since early July to create a quilt of their own design.

The Cape Ann quilt is one of many being constructed in the Boston area as part of the Faith Quilts Project, an artistic initiative to help people more deeply understand their faith tradition and that of others through collaborative quilt making.

Jamie Keshet, a psychologist and newcomer to Cape Ann, came up with the idea of using quilting to help Catholics through the difficult transition of church closings after attending a summer workshop on quilt-making taught by Clara Wainwright, cofounder and artistic director of the Faith Quilts Project. When the workshop ended, Wainwright urged Keshet to facilitate her own faith quilt project.

“There were a lot of articles in the paper about how sad people were over the closing of churches so I thought, ‘Why not create something new for the new parish?’ ” Keshet said.

The central image of the nine-by-six foot cloth collage, with its gray-blue background, is a black and copper cross superimposed on a large sun rising over the ocean; at the cross’ center, a white and purple circle. Scattered scraps of gold material, stitched beneath the sun, represent morning light on water. Surrounding the large center panel are blocks depicting the seven sacraments interspersed with smaller squares that represent stained glass windows -- a schooner, a butterfly, a rose, the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, a fish, and an abstract that can be “whatever you want,” said quilter Bea Ciramitaro. Rosary beads made of gold brocade and rich red cloth tumble around the outer border, and in each corner is a cloth cut-out of one of the four churches.

Working without a pattern, the women conceived the quilt’s design collaboratively.

“We held a discussion about what we thought coming together meant,” said quilter Joan Powers, a parishioner at St. Peter. “Someone had the idea of the four churches in the background fading out and the big cross representing us coming together. And then someone thought of the sacraments and we had the idea of the rosary. But it was really a communion of our thoughts. We just sat around and talked about what the closing meant and what our religion meant to each of us.”

For Karen Chambers, a parishioner at St. Joachim, the quilting sessions at St. Ann offered a way to deal with the sorrow of losing her worship space. Chambers said she wanted to come together and meet other women who were feeling the same way. Despite the sadness and anger among parishioners, there has also been “collaboration and joy” in making the quilt, she said.

“This is such an expression of faith,” said Chambers, who worked on the quilt blocks depicting the Eucharist and Holy Orders.

Ciramitaro, a parishioner at St. Ann, also appreciated how women from different parishes came together to work on the quilt. A life-long resident of Gloucester, Ciramitaro said she understood why the churches in her area were closing. “I’m a realist. There are no priests. Why should we have five churches?” she said.

To implement the design for their quilt, the Cape Ann women consulted photographs of ocean sunrises, studied the covers of church bulletins, with their line drawings of the church buildings, and they imagined. They cut out their images from an array of fabric, most of it purchased by Wainwright, and glued them on to panels that Keshet took home and stitched. These were then brought back to St. Ann where the women debated and discussed the panels’ alignment.

Some found the open-ended process initially disconcerting. “It’s a different way of quilting. It challenges the imagination,” said Powers, a traditional quilter. “I never use glue. With traditional quilting, there are pins and needles and thread, not glue. With this method, there is no pattern. You just come here and create something in two hours by cutting and piecing. It’s just your imagination. It can be good if you are good at it.”

Jewish by birth but not a member of a temple, Keshet said it has been an honor to put together people’s artwork. “I am learning about Catholicism. I’m learning about this community. When we talked about the central ideas for the quilt, some women were more focused on the sacraments. Some were more focused on the community. As you can see, there is a lot of negotiation. It has been a good reminder that there is no one way to be Catholic,” she said.

The Faith Quilts Project was started in 2003. Coordinators for the project hope to have 50 quilts to exhibit in Boston by April 2006. Although the project was primarily conceived to promote interfaith dialogue, most of the quilts made so far have come from single faith communities. The Cape Ann quilt is the first Faith Quilts project to address church closings.

By the end of this year, the Boston archdiocese plans to close 82 churches even as it opens a few new ones. There will be a net loss of 60 churches from the current 357. According to the archdiocesan Web site, changing demographics, the declining number of priests, and severe debt in some parishes are the primary reasons for this historic and massive reconfiguration.

On Cape Ann, four of the island’s five Catholic parishes (the Portuguese parish will remain untouched) are to be merged into a single parish that will have for its use the facilities at St. Ann, one of the oldest churches in the archdiocese; the church building at St. Joachim; and St. Anthony’s Chapel, located in St. Peter’s compound.

Fr. Timothy Harrison, pastor at St. Ann, said Cape Ann’s parishes lacked the priests and funds to continue functioning. The island’s current parish structure was established 100 years ago when immigrant communities living in isolated villages built the churches, Harrison said. Because of modern transportation all the island’s churches are easily accessible now.

Harrison regrets that Cape Ann Catholics did not have more time to assess the reorganization of their parishes. “I would have loved to have had a couple of years to work with people in making decisions, to get people to understand what was happening, to define roles,” he said. “The reconfiguration process was announced the middle of January 2004. We had from the middle of January to the beginning of March to submit a plan.”

Harrison said the faith quilt provides a nice way to visualize the new unity of the community. “Symbols are so important to express the reality of our faith,” he said. The need now is to “help people move beyond a specific building and see what the bigger reality is, that we are called to come together as a Christian community,” he said.

Parishioners of the new merged parish will celebrate their first Mass together at St. Ann on Jan. 8, the feast of the Holy Family. Hanging from the choir loft will be the faith quilt.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a frequent contributor to NCR who lives in Worcester, Mass.

Archbishop establishes committee to review church closings

Earlier this month, in response to parishioners’ unhappiness over the Boston archdiocese’s decision to close 82 of its 357 churches, Archbishop Sean O’Malley appointed an eight-member committee to review the process of church closings.

Co-chairs of the review committee are Notre Dame Sr. Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College, and Peter Meade, executive vice president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and volunteer chairman of the board of directors for Catholic Charities. Other members of the review committee include a priest, a pastoral associate, and Catholics from the Boston business community, among them an outspoken critic of archdiocesan management, and a parishioner from a parish scheduled to close.

The archdiocese has closed 28 churches so far; 54 more are slated for closure by the beginning of next year. Eisner and Meade told The Boston Globe Oct. 7 that the review committee did not expect to reexamine the status of churches already shuttered.

Unclear is whether the committee’s recommendations will lead the archdiocese to rethink some of its planned closings or to merely adjust the timing of those closings.

Meade and Eisner stressed that their committee is independent of O’Malley and they are prepared to tell him if mistakes were made.

-- Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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