St. John's in New Bedford closes after 141 years.
A focus on coverage of this Tuesday's election kept me from reporting the denouement of a sad story that I've been tracking for a while: on Sunday, St. John the Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts officially closed its doors after 141 years. The oldest Portuguese parish in the United States, St. John the Baptist had faced the possibility of closure for the past two years on account of demographic shifts, declining Mass attendance, and a lack of money to fund repairs to the aging church building. Despite efforts by parishioners to revitalize the parish community and raise needed capital, earlier this year the Fall River Diocese announced plans to close the church. Public protests by members and friends of the parish and interventions on their behalf by New Bedford mayor Jon Mitchell and area state representative Tony Cabral were not enough to reverse the decision, which parishioners may appeal to Rome. On Monday, the New Bedford Standard-Times had reactions from parishioners attendng the final Mass at St. John's:
George Ladino, 87, remembers marrying his wife in St. John the Baptist Church back in 1947. All five of his children were baptized at the church on the corner of County and Allen streets, he said.My prayers are with the parishioners of St. John the Baptist Church as they grieve their loss and face an uncertain future. AMDG.
But there won't be any new memories in the now-shuttered St. John the Baptist, where hymns were sung for the last time and clergy delivered their final Mass on Sunday, leaving many in tears and others vowing to appeal the closure all the way to the Vatican as the oldest Portuguese church in North America shut its doors.
"This has been our lives," Ladino said outside the church Sunday, standing with his wife and adult son.
Closure loomed for the 140-year-old church, the oldest Portuguese church in North America, since March after the Diocese of Fall River announced that it would shut it down because of declining attendance, shifting demographics in the city and high deferred maintenance costs and debt.
The church avoided taking on new debt over the past four years, however, said Fred Langevin, president of Friends of St. John the Baptist N.B., which opposes the closure. A capital campaign spearheaded by the group had also made some progress against the church's financial headwinds, he added.
When asked by reporters before the Mass if St. John's could see the sort of occupations or overnight vigils that have cropped up across the state since 2009, Langevin responded, "That's not what we're doing. ... We're here to save the parish."
The group has appealed to Bishop George W. Coleman to keep the church open; should that fail, they plan to take their appeal to the Vatican.
Parishioners from St. John's will be welcome at Our Lady of Mount Carmel — a Portuguese church on Bonney Street — where they will have the same pastor, the Rev. John J. Oliveira.
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Some of St. John's loyal members, however, said it would be hard to start over at a new church.
"I don't know where I'm going to go, I haven't decided yet," said Mario Fialho of New Bedford, who emigrated from Portugal in 1968 and attended Mass at St. John's for 42 years.
St. John the Baptist parish dates back to 1871, with the Rev. Joao Inacio de Azevedo Encarnacao, a native of the Azorean island of Pico, serving as pastor to the burgeoning Portuguese community in New Bedford.
Since then it has remained a fixture of New Bedford and Portuguese life, parishioners said Sunday.
"I feel like a part of my life has been ripped away," said Jesse Santos, 83, who was an altar boy at St. John's, married there and saw his two sons baptized there. "I have a broken heart."