Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

GLOBE MAGAZINE

Could the future of Catholicism be taking shape in this church basement?

In Fall River, a group of parishioners won the chance to run their crumbling church. If their experiment works here, it might just work anywhere.

I WAS SURE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH had lost the ability to wound me — or even to make me care.

Like so many others brought up in the church, I had drifted away in the face of its leaders’ princely arrogance, never mind outright criminality. There are only so many times you can hear about yet another bishop covering up for yet another predator in a collar, who had shredded the life of yet another vulnerable child. Or see a pastor call the cops to clear a church of its most loyal parishioners, as one did in Natick in 2004, leading to arrests on Christmas morning.

Many people made the difficult decision to stick with the Roman Catholic Church after the revelations in 2002 about widespread clergy sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, only to feel a new wave of violation a few years later. They were forced to watch their local church get shuttered as part of a diocesan real estate sell-off meant to confront dwindling attendance and mounting legal bills. Church closings tend to be the ultimate local issue, though. If yours is on the chopping block, you care passionately. Otherwise, it can seem like somebody else’s problem.

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Yet it doesn’t always work that way. If the Fall River Diocese that I grew up in had closed the church where I was baptized, or the one where I made my First Communion and was confirmed, it frankly would not have mattered much to me. It wasn’t until the bishop of Fall River announced last year his plan to close St. Anne’s Church — a parish that no one in my family had ever officially belonged to — when I felt the dagger draw blood.

The idea that this magnificent structure — built more than a century ago with the sweat, pennies, and craftsmanship of French-Canadian mill workers — would simply be boarded up, and then perhaps razed to make a parking lot, struck me as supremely wrong. There was absolutely no indication then that this death warrant would end up sparking the most promising feelings I’ve had about a Catholic undertaking in a long time.

* * *

IF I HAD TO EXPLAIN to somebody the space that the Catholic Church somehow continues to occupy in my consciousness, it would be easier simply to take them to St. Anne’s. Dominating the Fall River skyline with its twin onion-shaped bell towers, the church is a crumbling granite-and-marble repository of nearly everything about Catholicism that I still value.

First of all, the place honors the deep history of a 2,000-year-old religion that marks time not in years but in centuries. St. Anne’s began inauspiciously in 1870 with a chapel whose floor collapsed during the dedication ceremony, injuring its French pastor and 30 parishioners. In 1891, work started on the current Romanesque Revival edifice 2 miles away. It took 15 years to finish. It was worth the wait.

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The upper church invokes the majesty of a European cathedral. With seating for nearly 2,000, it has soaring ceilings, exquisite gold-trimmed statues and red oak ornamentations, and one of the largest pipe organs in New England. The place is a rare reminder of when Fall River, the onetime textile mill capital of the Western Hemisphere, performed on the world stage.

As arresting as the architecture is, more important to me is what happens in the basement of St. Anne’s. It’s a shrine that testifies to the mysteries of faith, the personal connections that are unaffected by any Vatican pronouncement and unmediated by any monsignor. My family belonged to another parish in the area, mostly for reasons of proximity. But St. Anne’s always felt like more of our spiritual home. When I was a boy in the 1970s, my father would lead me by the hand around the shrine’s nooks and alcoves, each one the candle-ringed home to the statue of a particular saint. In hushed tones, he would tell me about these saints and the hurdles they were said to have overcome. Every Catholic knows there’s real power in these kinds of stories and iconography — enough to have helped propel an obscure sect into a global juggernaut. My dad knew — and, before long, I did too — that many of the stories were exaggerated if not apocryphal, but he used them as a way into discussions about real-life struggle and morality.

op: With soaring ceilings and exquisite ornamentations, the upper church evokes the majesty of a European cathedral. Above:
With soaring ceilings and exquisite ornamentations, the upper church evokes the majesty of a European cathedral.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

We didn’t have to look far for examples. And that gets to what I find most meaningful about St. Anne’s: its air of acceptance. Whether we were walking by people sleeping off a hangover in the entryway or others fighting withdrawal symptoms in a pew, struggle was all around. There was a poor box, into which people slid cash to help the needy, and, later, a food pantry. Unlike those pristine cathedrals that stand in silent judgment and feel as closed-off as a private art collection, St. Anne’s always seemed to welcome people as they were.

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Not surprisingly, some took advantage of this. The Reverend David Deston, the last priest assigned to St. Anne’s, tells me he once caught a prostitute and her john exiting the women’s restroom. “Can I help you?” he asked. “You look a little lost.” The guy went pale and the woman bolted for the exit. Deston was taken aback, but many of the people who regularly prayed in the shrine would have probably just shrugged — a small price to pay for preserving the unlocked, live-and-let-live atmosphere.

During its late-19th-century reign as cotton-mill king, Fall River was home to one of the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents of any city in the country — French-Canadians, Portuguese, Irish, English, Italians, Lebanese, Polish, Eastern European Jews. Mostly, the Catholics kept to their own neighborhoods and their own churches. At the city’s other big French church, Notre Dame, the parishioners were so opposed when the bishop appointed an Irish pastor that they tossed whiskey bottles full of excrement through his window. When he tried making announcements during Mass, they were all simultaneously overcome with violent coughing fits. Before long, they got their French pastor.

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St. Anne’s, though, seemed to transcend ethnic identity. It was bigger and grander, and attracted pilgrims from great distances. There were stacks of crutches against the wall — there still are — left by those who attributed their healing to prayers said in the shrine. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my Lebanese father picked up my Irish mother from work. Rather than going to their home church, they headed straight to St. Anne’s to light candles. There, they found a multiethnic crowd doing the same thing. St. Anne’s was the place you went when you didn’t know what else to do.

Stacks of crutches have always been a mainstay at St. Anne’s, left by people who attribute their healing to prayers said in the shrine.
Stacks of crutches have always been a mainstay at St. Anne’s, left by people who attribute their healing to prayers said in the shrine.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

My four siblings and I were baptized in Fall River’s Maronite Catholic church — the Lebanese parish. After our family moved over the bridge to Somerset, we joined a Roman Catholic parish. But our connection to St. Anne’s remained strong. When I accompanied my dad on errand runs in Fall River, we invariably ended up stopping at the shrine. We made the circuit around the dim basement to the five saints he had designated as a patron for each of us kids, ending with my middle-namesake, St. Anthony, and St. Jude for my little sister, Judy. There was one corner that never failed to creep me out — a wax figure of a young, bloodied brunette wearing a red velvet dress and lying in a glass coffin. The sign identified her as St. Concordia, a young pagan who’d been flogged and martyred after she converted to Catholicism. Thankfully, my dad never lingered in front of her.

 Nestled among the statues of better-known saints in the basement shrine of St. Anne’s, the wax figure of a bloodied St. Concordia in a glass coffin has long been known to mesmerize children -- or creep them out.
Nestled among the statues of better-known saints in the basement shrine of St. Anne’s, the wax figure of a bloodied St. Concordia in a glass coffin has long been known to mesmerize children — or creep them out.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

My parents donated kneelers to the shrine in memory of their relatives. And until his death five years ago, my dad volunteered at St. Anne’s Food Pantry every Saturday, warmly welcoming the people in line like old friends.

Yet as the years stacked up, St. Anne’s grew weaker. Like most Catholic parishes, it saw a sharp drop in attendance and a huge spike in disgust following the clergy abuse revelations. Fall River was at the leading edge of that scandal, a full decade before the Globe’s Spotlight report helped drive Cardinal Bernard Law out of Boston. In 1992, furious over the newspaper’s coverage of former Fall River priest and serial pedophile James Porter, Law thundered, “By all means, we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.

At the time Law made that pronouncement, St. Anne’s was drawing about 1,400 people to its Masses every weekend. In recent years, that number had sunk to fewer than 300.

People forget just how dominant the Catholic Church became in the United States by the second half of the 20th century, and how dramatic the decline has been. Nearly one-third of American adults today were raised Catholic, though close to half of those no longer consider themselves members of the church, according to the Pew Research Center. That means there are lots of no-longer-active Catholics who still have the saints and the scents of the church floating around the recesses of their minds.

The decline has been more acute at St. Anne’s, sitting as it does in one of the state’s poorest cities, unable to scrape together the funds to maintain a deteriorating structure. During Mass in the upper church in May 2015, a big chunk of plaster fell, landing near a pew. The city’s building inspector ordered the upper church closed, which moved all Masses to the basement chapel. The diocese commissioned a study that produced a spare-no-expense estimate of $13.5 million to renovate the place, starting with its leaking slate roof.

So no one could have claimed to be shocked when, in October of last year, Bishop Edgar da Cunha announced that St. Anne’s would close, and then said a final Mass there a month later. Still, that didn’t make the decision right.

Richard Affonso, head of the lay group that has taken over St. Anne’s, hopes to reopen the upper church, closed since plaster fell during a 2015 Mass.
Richard Affonso, head of the lay group that has taken over St. Anne’s, hopes to reopen the upper church, closed since plaster fell during a 2015 Mass.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A 39-year-old handyman named Richard Affonso, who had found enough solace in the back pew to help him kick a drug addiction, picked up a “Save St. Anne’s” sign and started a protest. Dozens of other parishioners joined him. Despite their resolve, their campaign seemed destined for the same path that so many closed parishes around the region went down the last decade and a half: appeals to the Vatican that were long, tedious, and ultimately fruitless.

Yet earlier this year, the Fall River bishop surprised everyone by announcing he would turn over the church — and its bills — to the St. Anne’s Preservation Society, a nonprofit group of lay volunteers headed by Affonso. The bishop would give them a 10-year lease, charging a dollar a year, to run the church and try to get it back into shape.

The deal, which is the first of its kind for a Catholic church in New England, offers the type of lay local control that reformers have long coveted in their quest to wrest power from Rome. Because this new arrangement will involve lay people running a Catholic church that no longer houses either a priest or a parish — the Vatican’s jurisdictional grouping of a faith community — it also raises a fundamental question: How much can a church lose before it stops being a church?

If Affonso, sporting a crucifix tattoo behind his left ear, is a surprising leader for this arrangement, the man who negotiated it is even more unlikely. Brody Hale is a young, dogged, visually impaired lawyer who works pro bono out of his childhood bedroom in the Berkshires. He previously negotiated deals to save 15 Catholic churches in other parts of the country. But those generally involved small churches in rural areas, posing nowhere near the challenges associated with a huge, historic church in a dense, struggling city.

If the experiment works at St. Anne’s, it could become a model for dioceses around the country that have too few priests and parishioners for their big old churches. But first it has to work at St. Anne’s.

Dominating the skyline with its twin onion-shaped bell towers, St. Anne’s is a reminder of the days when Fall River performed on the world stage.
Dominating the skyline with its twin onion-shaped bell towers, St. Anne’s is a reminder of the days when Fall River performed on the world stage.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

* * *

IN JUNE 2003, on the night before he would graduate from high school, Brody Hale headed with his mother to an emergency meeting at St. Francis of Assisi, their church set against the Berkshire Mountains in South Lee. The parishioners were gathering to try to reverse the Springfield Diocese’s surprise announcement that it planned to shutter the church.

A modest wooden chapel, St. Francis had been built in 1882 by Italian and Irish immigrant workers from the local paper mills, including Hale’s great-great-grandfather. Because St. Francis’s finances were in the black and it regularly filled most of its 144 seats, Hale couldn’t understand why the bishop would want to close it.

The place had been a rock for Hale’s devout mother after she extricated herself from a bad marriage. She raised Brody and his two younger sisters while working the graveyard shift as a hospital nurse. Brody was particularly drawn to St. Francis because of the strength he saw it give her. Born with a congenital deterioration of the retina, he was unable to see more than shapes in the distance or to read without the use of a magnifying device. While his sisters were involved in sports, he spent his time devouring the Encyclopedia Britannica and burrowing into his Catholic faith.

After the Springfield Diocese begrudgingly shelved its plan to close St. Francis, a relieved Hale moved east to attend Tufts University at the end of the summer in 2003. The next year, the Boston Archdiocese announced its controversial plan to close 65 parishes, expecting the faithful to do as they were told and move to the pews in neighboring Catholic churches.

The pope had tapped then-Archbishop Sean O’Malley to do in Boston what he had previously done in Fall River: clean up the legal mess by settling all the abuse claims, selling off churches to secure the funds necessary for the payouts. However sensible the spreadsheets may have seemed to O’Malley’s team, the announcement of their plan produced a ferocious blowback. There were round-the-clock occupations of churches by parishioners that lasted for years, and feelings of betrayal that have yet to heal.

“This was just a property grab for money,” says Arthur McCaffrey, one of the organizers of the vigil at St. James the Great Church in Wellesley, which lasted from 2004 to 2012. “With an $85 million bill for abuse victims, they needed to raise money quickly.” After all the appeals were denied, the archdiocese sold that Wellesley church for nearly $4 million to the town. It was razed to make way for a 130,000-square-foot sports complex.

Above: Lawyer Brody Hale uses Catholic canon law to try to block the closure of churches. He couldn’t save his family church in the Berkshires, St. Francis of Assisi, now an art gallery.
Lawyer Brody Hale uses Catholic canon law to try to block the closure of churches. He couldn’t save his family church in the Berkshires, St. Francis of Assisi, now an art gallery.
Neil Swidey/Globe staff

From his dorm room at Tufts, Hale watched these closures with alarm. Then, in the summer of 2005, the Springfield bishop once again targeted Hale’s beloved St. Francis. Hale did everything he could to save his church, including filing appeals to the Vatican and adopting the occupation tactics he had witnessed in Boston. He and other parishioners offered to assume all the costs of upkeep, but the diocese sold St. Francis in 2011 for $120,000. The new owner turned it into an art gallery.

After college, Hale spent a year in South Korea as a Fulbright Scholar and a year in New Orleans doing Teach For America. In 2012, during his first year at Boston College Law School, he had an epiphany. He’d watched years of failed attempts by Catholics to keep their churches open. That same year, even O’Malley’s point person for the parish consolidation, the Reverend Paul Soper, admitted the plan had backfired. “Closing parishes didn’t work,” Soper told the Globe. “When a parish closed, people just went away. The numbers worshipping didn’t improve. We were not better off afterward.”

By then, Hale had become well versed in canon law, the set of statutes governing the Catholic Church. He accessed it online with the help of his text-to-speech computer software. “God bless the Holy See for putting canon law in a form that a blind guy can read,” he quips.

Hale understood that bishops have wide latitude to close parishes, but closing an actual church building is a different matter. If a bishop decides to sell a church, Canon Code 1222 offers four options “listed in decreasing order of preference”: (1) seeing it continue as a place of Catholic worship; or (2) for other Catholic activities; or (3) for a non-sacred “profane” use as long as it is not “sordid” (one that violates church teachings). Option (4), the last resort, is demolishing the building.

As Hale saw it, many bishops were jumping right to the last option. “Churches are not poker chips a bishop can use to cash out when he’s in a bind,” he says.

Although it would probably be futile to try to get the Vatican to overrule a bishop’s decision to close a parish, Hale figured the odds should be much better for keeping a church open as a sacred space. Hale would just need to find a group of lay people willing to assume all the responsibilities for maintaining it — as well as all the costs, which could range from $10,000 a year to several million, depending on the size and condition of the building.

Hale knew he was accepting an enormous challenge. But he saw it as a way to take his lingering feelings of helplessness over the closure of St. Francis and convert it into righteous power. And as someone whose abilities people had routinely discounted because of his visual impairment, he always relished the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

He started scouring the Internet each day looking for news articles about Catholic churches on the chopping block around the country. From there, he would try to identify passionate parishioners who weren’t just sad about the closure but would be invested enough to put in the time and raise the money. “Sad isn’t going to cut it,” he says. Then he’d cold call them, offering to guide them through the process so they could do for their cherished church what he had been unable to do for his.

In his first year at BC Law, Hale successfully negotiated a deal to preserve a tiny church in Spring Fork, Missouri. He went on to negotiate 14 more over the next seven years, while finishing his studies at BC and getting a master’s degree at Columbia.

In 2017, Hale moved back into his childhood bedroom in Tyringham, the tiny town bordering South Lee. This spring, he was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and New York and began trying to get his law practice off the ground. That’s not easy when the 34-year-old spends most of his time volunteering to save churches he’s never stepped foot in. He still sleeps under a crucifix in his twin bed and carries the same slim, 5-foot-7 frame from his younger days, though he is now bald.

In the face of all the criminality on the part of church leaders, Hale’s closest friend from law school once asked him, “How can you be part of that evil, awful institution? It is beyond repair.”

Hale offers no defense for church leaders. In fact, he says he’s encountered a number of priests over the years who had credible accusations of immoral behavior made against them, from plying a choir member with alcohol for sexual favors to impregnating a rectory housekeeper. To him, though, Catholicism is much bigger than the flawed men of cloth who made a mockery of it.

While he praises bishops like Fall River’s da Cunha, who have embraced the opportunity to maintain churches as sacred spaces, rejections are still more common. Many bishops seem to just want to pad diocesan coffers with the proceeds from lucrative property sales. Yet he says he’s encountered some bishops who refuse to turn over churches to lay groups even when the real estate is worth almost nothing. His only explanation: “Arrogance. There are plenty of control freaks in the hierarchy.”

Hale’s stepfather once said to him: “Restaurants close all the time. Are you going to make this much of a fuss each time one of them closes?” To Hale, that question misses the point. Once a Catholic church has been consecrated as a sacred space and sacraments have been performed there, he argues, it can’t simply be turned into something else. To people who don’t worship at the altar of canon law, that might seem like an academic distinction. A building is a building, right?

It’s not until I accompany Hale to his former parish church in South Lee that Hale’s motivation becomes clearer. As we’re standing in front of the church-turned-art-gallery, he starts to explain the lingering pain he feels over his failure to save St. Francis for his mother. He imagines how helpless she must have felt at age 14, after she lost her own mother and had to watch as the coffin was carried out of this church, knowing she would have to become the mother to her six younger siblings.

Hale’s confident voice grows quiet, and then cracks. He apologizes, lifting his sunglasses to wipe away tears.

* * *

 In the mystical basement, people pray to the saints they are most devoted to, such as this statue depicting St. Anne with her daughter, the Virgin Mary, as a child.
In the mystical basement, people pray to the saints they are most devoted to, such as this statue depicting St. Anne with her daughter, the Virgin Mary, as a child.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

THE SCENT IS WHAT CATCHES me first. On July 26, the Feast Day of St. Anne, more than 400 people file into the basement chapel, including me and my mother. Although St. Anne’s has been closed for the better part of a year, it looks exactly as I remember it, only cleaner. Hanging in the air is the sulfury smell of candles that transports me back to my childhood.

After nine months of gloomy talk about St. Anne’s, there is a celebratory mood. Tonight marks the official reopening of the church under the direction of the lay St. Anne’s Preservation Society. Since a soft reopening a few weeks earlier, volunteers have kept the shrine open 10 hours a day, seven days a week, a schedule they vow to continue.

The crowd is a classic St. Anne’s mix of people who look down on their luck, people who look prosperous, and lots of people in between. There’s a kid in a New England Revolution jersey sitting in front of me, staring at the ceiling fan whirring above us. Behind me, a petite, elderly widow shrouded by a veil stands near a heavily tattooed middle-aged guy in a shirt with the sleeves cut off.

At the lectern doing a reading is Affonso, who everyone calls Richie, dressed in a navy suit and a lavender shirt. His wife and their 11-year-old daughter look on from the front row. Together for 17 years, the couple got married a year ago — theirs was the last wedding held in St. Anne’s.

Affonso and his fellow volunteers had been logging punishing hours to get the place ready. After a rainstorm a few weeks earlier, Dave Gregoire, a retired electrician, called Affonso from the flooded basement and cracked, “You’d better bring a boat.” But somehow they had gotten it all done.

Heading into the church, my mother wondered if the kneelers she and my father had donated would still be there. They turned out to be exactly where they’d been, one in front of the statue of St. Joseph, and the other, St. Anthony.

In St. Joseph’s alcove we bump into Normand Valiquette, an 87-year-old volunteer who has taken care of the candles in the shrine for 30 years, after his sister had done it for 30 years before him. He tells me that, in addition to donating the two new kneelers, my father had seen to it that the torn vinyl pads were replaced on all the other kneelers in the shrine — something even my mom had forgotten about.

Bishop da Cunha has returned to St. Anne’s to say this feast Mass. When the collection basket comes around, many people seem pleased to toss in tens and twenties, rather than the typical ones and fives. In his homily, the bishop compliments the lay group on all their hard work, but also signals how steep the climb may still be ahead of them. “It would sadden me more than anything else,” he says, “to see this deteriorate.”

* * *

Although it no longer has an assigned priest or regular services, lay-run St. Anne’s still feels like a Catholic church, especially during occasional Masses in the basement chapel.
Although it no longer has an assigned priest or regular services, lay-run St. Anne’s still feels like a Catholic church, especially during occasional Masses in the basement chapel.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

ALTHOUGH ST. ANNE’S looks largely the same and continues to draw a passionate community of the faithful, it is no longer led by a priest reporting up the chain of command. It also no longer holds regular Masses. The agreement with the bishop guarantees just two Masses a year, though the lay group can ask for permission to hold more.

Is that enough to make it a church? A sacred space?

In her sociology of religion courses at Brandeis University, professor Wendy Cadge explores the question of what makes a space sacred. It also animates her research project uncovering and documenting hidden sacred spaces around Greater Boston, from Logan International Airport (which has the country’s first airport chapel) to similar spaces in prisons, retirement communities, even a museum.

She leans on the framework created by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He defined religion as a unified system of belief and practices relative to sacred things (those that are “set apart and forbidden”) and a church as a moral community of people united in their shared thinking about the sacred.

By that definition, the community of believers keeping the lights on, and the candles lit, in the basement of St. Anne’s would certainly qualify as a church.

Voice of the Faithful, the group formed in 2002 after the clergy abuse revelations, aimed to reform the Catholic Church from within by asserting more lay control. But it couldn’t get far with the leaders of a medieval institution legendary for its hostility to both reform and power-sharing. That’s one reason the St. Anne’s experiment is so promising. With lay people as the decision-makers, they might be able to make the kind of local changes, working from the periphery, that Voice of the Faithful was unable to make systemically, working from within.

As unusual as the lay-run arrangement at St. Anne’s may seem, it’s actually a throwback to how many Catholic parishes in rural areas operated in this country before the mid-19th century. Back then, there simply weren’t enough priests around, so they would travel from church to church, and lay people would run things in their absence, says John Seitz, an associate professor at Fordham University. His book No Closure recounts his immersion in the Boston church closings while he was at Harvard working on his PhD. “The archdiocese kept saying, ‘The church is the people of God, not the bricks and the roof.’ The people who took over their churches understood that,” Seitz says. “But they were also aware of the value of the place. Its specialness was not mobile. It was local.”

By closing churches, Catholic leaders extinguished that specialness. St. Anne’s could help illuminate a path ahead where the church hierarchy, desperately short of priests, revives that earlier example of how to work with, rather than against, its parishioners.

Getting there will require these leaders to share real control instead of hoarding it. Less trusting bishops no doubt fear arrangements like St. Anne’s because it could give Catholics the option to practice their faith without joining — and contributing money to — an official parish. Yet as the Boston Archdiocese experience showed, once a church is closed, many of those Catholics will not come back. If leaders turn those churches over to lay people, some members will also join an official parish. But even those who are active only in their lay-run church will still be under the Catholic tent.

That’s how it has played out at St. Mary of the Rock Church in rural Indiana. In 2013, Brody Hale negotiated a deal to turn over the care and upkeep of that historic church, built in 1862, to a lay group headed by Laura Huber. “The sacred spaces of yesterday are so much more beautiful than what we have today,” Huber says. “They raise you to a higher level as soon as you enter them.”

A 50-year-old grandmother, Huber has run the church for the past six years with same half-dozen active volunteers. They keep the church open 24 hours a day, and, with the help of a nearby priest, hold Mass once a month.

Her advice to the St. Anne’s group is to get along with local clergy. “Be respectful, but let them know that you’re serious and you are in control of this.”

St. Anne’s once again has an active community of the faithful gathering in a sacred space. But to get back to that original question—is it really a church?—I turn to Father Deston, the last priest assigned there.

He sighs and pauses. “No, because the Blessed Sacrament isn’t there. And that’s the beating heart,” he says, referring to the body of Christ in the form of consecrated bread. “Of primary importance is what’s in that little gold box. In some sense, St. Anne’s is a church because it looks like one and there are believers who go to pray there. But in a larger sense, no, because He’s not there.”

Actually, He is.

* * *

The St. Anne’s basement shrine testifies to the mysteries of faith, the personal connections unmediated by any monsignor.
The St. Anne’s basement shrine testifies to the mysteries of faith, the personal connections unmediated by any monsignor.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

ON A SATURDAY MORNING in September, when I stop by the basement shrine, Richie Affonso is emptying trash cans.

During that feast Mass six weeks earlier, the St. Anne’s volunteers had raised $8,100 from a combination of the collection basket, candle sales, and the sale of malasadas — Portuguese fried dough — in the lobby. They followed that up by working with a Chinese restaurant to sell enough chow mein sandwiches — another Fall River staple — to bring in $10,023. That pushed the St. Anne’s Preservation Society bank balance up to almost $80,000.

Right after that feast Mass, Affonso had been walking on air. Capitalizing on the bishop’s good feelings, Affonso had asked him for permission to keep the Blessed Sacrament in St. Anne’s at all times, rather than just for special Masses. The bishop assented.

Today, however, Affonso’s feet are very much back on the ground. In the small church office, there is a white board displaying the coverage schedule for 26 active volunteers. Affonso had been working even more than usual because earlier that week Dave Gregoire, the retired electrician who had been volunteering 40 hours a week, had undergone an emergency triple bypass.

Cecile Michno, an 81-year-old longtime lector and key volunteer, approaches Affonso with a stack of new bills, trying to make sense of multiple invoices from various utilities. “The thing is,” she says, “there’s so many of them.”

Affonso argues the diocese’s $13.5 million estimate to renovate the church had been excessive, since it called for a soup-to-nuts overhaul. For $2 million, he says, they should be able to replace the leaking slate roof and do all the major structural repairs needed to reopen the upper church. That’s quite a bit less than $13.5 million. But it’s still a long way from $80,000.

On his desk is a letter asking the bishop for permission to hold another Mass later in September (which da Cunha will later green light). Affonso hopes eventually to get permission for a monthly Mass.

As the financial pressures have become more apparent, Affonso is feeling the need to be more hard-nosed. His group plans to ask St. Anne’s Food Pantry, a shoestring nonprofit, to pay for the electricity they use. Although Affonso had found comfort in the pews of St. Anne’s when he was battling addiction, he recently had to ask a woman who was sleeping inside the church while cradling a beer to leave because she was making others uncomfortable. It pained him to do it, but these are the kinds of decisions for the greater good that he feels the need to make these days. “This is a business,” he says, “I hate to say it like that.”

Outside the office, we find volunteer Bob Bernier selling candles. The lay group has surprised everyone by getting this far, but Affonso’s goal is more ambitious. He wants to reopen the upper church and return the place to its former glory. “This should be the central church of Fall River in ten years,” he says.

“I hope it doesn’t take ten years,” the 80-year-old Bernier whispers. “I want to have my funeral here.”

With the pace of Catholic drift and defections only quickening, Affonso sees no reason why St. Anne’s old mystical hold and new lay control shouldn’t make it a magnet once again. “Maybe everybody can come here to pray instead of all the little churches around,” he says. “The Catholic faith is one family.”

Consolidating operations. Running it like a business. Maybe Affonso, with his unshakable faith, has a future as a bishop.