EVERETT, Mass. — The thermometer inside St. Therese Church reads a toe-numbing 36 degrees. A pail of water used for hand-washing has frozen under a sink that, like the heating system, hasn't worked in months. In the sanctuary, four women in coats, hats and gloves huddle as they pray the rosary, their breath visible in the cold.
"We don't have faith in the archdiocese. I think we have faith in God," said Sheila O'Brien, 63.
She and the others have been occupying St. Therese as part of a string of sit-ins going on round-the-clock for more than four years at five Roman Catholic churches closed by the Boston Archdiocese. The protesters are hoping to force the archdiocese — or the Vatican — to reopen the churches.
The archdiocese says it won't remove any of the protesters by force. It has not cut off the electricity in any of the churches and has kept the heat and water on in all of them except St. Therese.
The archdiocese announced the closings nearly five years ago, citing falling attendance, a priest shortage and money problems. Amid bitter protests, the number of parishes has been reduced from 357 to 292 in a process so agonizing that Cardinal Sean O'Malley said at one point: "At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job."
Many of those taking part in the occupation suspect their churches are being sold off to pay the archdiocese's $85 million settlement in the priest sex scandal. The archdiocese denies it, saying the settlement was covered by insurance and the sale of other church property.
The vigils started in August 2004 at a Weymouth church where parishioners refused to leave after what was supposed to be the final Mass. Nine churches have been occupied; four of them were reopened after the archdiocese relented.
Similar vigils have taken place elsewhere in the United States — including New York City, Kansas and Ohio — but not every diocese has tolerated the dissent. In New Orleans in January, church leaders called in police after two months, and they broke down a door and arrested two protesters as they cleared out two churches.
Sister Marian Batho, an archdiocesan liaison to the Boston area's occupied churches, said O'Malley wouldn't consider that approach: "Cardinal Sean is a man of peace."
Jon Rogers, who has taken part in the occupation of St. Frances X. Cabrini church in the town of Scituate, said he believes the archdiocese targeted his church for closing because of its valuable 30 acres of coastal real estate south of Boston.
The occupation "is a necessity in our lives," he said. "Because without your faith, what do you have?"