On Friday evenings, Francis Hajdas takes his sleeping bag to church. He puts it down among the pews on the left side, close to the century-old carved-wood confessionals, before examining a folding table by a marble tomb of Jesus, which holds a spread of apples, candy canes, water and homemade cookies donated by supporters.
"People come from near and far to drop off food and wish us good luck," says the retired Navy electronics specialist, 72. "Makes me feel good to know that should I go to jail for this, I did the right thing."
On Dec. 26, Hajdas and about 50 other parishioners in this northern Berkshires town seized the church of St. Stanislaus Kostka to protest plans to shut it down. They say they'll keep their vigil until their appeal is heard by the Vatican--or until the Diocese of Springfield, which oversees Adams' churches, has them forcibly removed.
Struggling with dwindling congregations and battered by massive payouts to victims of clergy sexual-abuse scandals, dioceses in many parts of the U.S. have been closing or merging hundreds of churches to save costs. Now, however, the faithful are fighting back: the Friends of St. Stan's are part of a growing movement among Catholics who reject their dioceses' reform plans and are waging campaigns to stop them. Churchgoers at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate, Mass., have been occupying the sanctuary for more than four years--one of four such vigils in the Boston area. In New Orleans on Jan. 6, police raided two churches slated for closure, ending a nine-week sit-in; three resisting parishioners were led out in handcuffs.
At St. Stanislaus Kostka, protesters are learning the mundane lessons of church occupation: Bring your own toilet paper. Dress warmly against the nave's meager heating. And no matter how just your cause, don't expect a decent night's sleep on St. Stan's hard wooden pews. Built by Polish immigrants in 1902 and named after a 16th century Polish Jesuit novice, the church is profusely decorated with statues, stained glass, mosaics and hand-painted biblical scenes; a depiction of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is richly decorated with diamonds, pearls and other jewels donated by parishioners. Until last month, it served a prosperous congregation of about 800; unlike many churches fighting closure, supporters say, St. Stan's is financially viable. "We are a vibrant community keeping many Polish traditions alive," says Dola Scieszka-Lipinski, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Stan's and hopes to be buried there one day. "Why would they close us?"
Church leaders say that closures are simply unavoidable; in addition to low attendance, the Springfield diocese faces an acute shortage of priests. "It was clear that of the three Catholic churches in Adams, two had to close," says Monsignor John Bonzagni, the diocese's director of pastoral planning. "We tried to make the best pastoral decision."
Peter Borré, head of the Boston-based advocacy group Council of Parishes, disagrees. "The dioceses are using these parishes as a milking cow," he charges. "They need the cash to pay for sexual-abuse settlements. That is why more parishes are willing to go against their leadership: they want to stand up against such injustice." Borré, 70, a Rome-born, Jesuit-educated former energy executive, started the council to advise churches facing closure after his own parish in Charlestown, Mass., was shut in 2004. Borré has been involved in the Boston vigils from the beginning and is leading their appeal before the Vatican Supreme Court. In the case of St. Stanislaus Kostka, he sat in his car in front of the bishop's house to hand-deliver the parishioners' letter of intent.
Like Borré, the Friends of St. Stan are ready for a long fight. "We are prepared to do what it takes," says David Aitken, 54, who used to ring the church bells. For the moment, at least, the diocese is treating its errant flock with patience. "Suffering the closing of your parish is like watching a parent die," says Monsignor Bonzagni. "If the parishioners at St. Stan's need to mourn this way, we will do nothing to interfere."