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NEW ORLEANS — Police evicted parishioners from two New Orleans Catholic churches on Tuesday (Jan. 6), apparently ending a 72-day standoff that began when parishioners moved into the churches and occupied them around the clock to save them from closure.
Accompanied by lawyers from the city attorney’s office, police arrived almost simultaneously at 121-year-old Our Lady of Good Counsel and at the 152-year-old St. Henry Church, about a mile away, on Tuesday morning.
People at St. Henry said police knocked at the locked door, were allowed entry and told three protesting parishioners to leave or face a civil summons or arrest. However, police and church officials had to force their way into Good Counsel, either battering down or sawing an opening in a side door, parishioners said.
A parishioner at St. Henry, Cynthia Robidoux, rushed to her church in tears and pleaded for entry to swap places with those inside, who she said had not anticipated arrest. She, however, welcomed it.
“I want everyone to see what they’re doing. I want them to be ashamed,” she said through tears, referring to Archbishop Alfred Hughes and other church officials.
Robidoux later negotiated a deal to go inside and accept a civil summons for criminal trespass and forgo the spectacle of arrest and handcuffs before gathering media.
Meantime, at Good Counsel, three protesters were arrested and led out of the church in handcuffs and placed in a police car, police spokesman Garry Flot said.
One of the three, Harold Baquet, said he climbed onto the church’s roof to escape notice, but police found him there. In an interview later, Baquet indicated someone might still be in the church undetected, but did not elaborate.
At both churches, police were accompanied by members of the archdiocese’s property management office. They supervised the changing of locks and made sure the buildings were secured.
“They broke in a door … a 100-year-old door to get in,” said Good Counsel parishioner Mary Alice Sirkis. “This is a very poor example of religion. Not only is it not Catholic, it isn’t even Christian.”
Last April, Hughes ordered 142 parishes reduced to 108, partly to consolidate parishes thinned out by Hurricane Katrina, and partly because he said the church can no longer staff so many pulpits with priests.
For 10 weeks, the archdiocese had taken a hands-off approach to the occupations. Alden Hagardorn, a leader of the lay resistance at St.Henry’s, said that as late as Monday, archdiocesan spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey had promised that police would not be used to break up the impasse.
“Twenty-four hours later, they’re here. That goes with all their other lies,” he said.
But the archdiocese blamed the protesters for forcing the eviction by resisting pleas by Hughes to desist — most recently during an unusual but unsuccessful visitation at 2 a.m. on Saturday that awakened occupiers at the two churches.
Comiskey said protesters had forced the archdiocese’s hand by deciding to lock themselves in, leaving the archdiocese in the dark about conditions in the churches.
“This decision was made reluctantly after exploring every possible alternative, including multiple attempts to persuade the people to leave the building on their own,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “These initiatives are unfortunate but made necessary now to ensure the safety of the people and security of the buildings.”
Parishioners in both places said they treated the buildings they loved with respect and care — in St. Henry’s case giving it a thorough cleaning as the long hours of occupation dragged by.
The archdiocese also expressed concerns about parishioners inappropriately exercising and bringing children into the closed churches. Protesters responded that the exercising was merely walking around the indoor perimeter of the church, and the children were young teens who sometimes accompanied a sleeping parent overnight at Good Counsel.
“Is my faith still strong? Yes,” said Robidoux at St. Henry. “But is my faith in the hierarchy, in men of the cloth intact? Absolutely not.”
While the New Orleans occupations appear to be over, similar occupations at five shuttered Catholic parishes in Boston continue after more than four years. Most churches that are closed by their bishops are unsuccessful in appealing their cases to the Vatican.
“They can’t go on for infinity,” Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, recently told The New York Times. “These have to end at some point, but how, I don’t know.”
(Bruce Nolan and Susan Finch write for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.)
By BRUCE NOLAN and SUSAN FINCH c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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