Are Space Aliens the New Jesus?
Scientology is on the march in Boston, even as the city’s traditional religious power continues its inexorable decline. And that has our writer imagining a whole new world of possibilities for Bostonians’ beloved knee-jerk, hokum-drenched piety.
BOSTON, APRIL 1, 2010—Our Lady of Perpetual Help, commonly known as the Mission Church, towers over Tremont Street in Mission Hill. The only officially recognized minor basilica in Massachusetts, it is renowned as a “Lourdes in the land of the Puritans,” a place where Catholics have gone for generations to be healed of a host of maladies, such as constipation and trench foot.
Now, the Mission Church’s final act of healing will be a wholly self-effacing one: Last week the foundering Archdiocese of Boston announced it is selling the building to the Boston branch of the Church of Scientology. The move comes amid an ongoing reshuffling of the local religious hierarchy. While Catholic, Protestant, and Christian Science churches divest property in a struggle to stay afloat, the Scientologists have been asserting themselves of late, offering to help with the city’s gang and illiteracy problems, running major recruiting drives, and in 2008 buying the South End’s historic Alexandra Hotel. The incursion has provoked widespread protests, both from secular groups such as the Web-based “Anonymous” and from church organizations affronted by the tenets of Scientology, which has been criticized as a ruthless commercial enterprise cobbled together by an opportunistic plagiarist, and stewarded entirely by goons.
Count Peggy O’Harridan among the opposition. The lifelong Mission Hill resident, who says that were it not for the Mission Church’s miraculous power her annual battles with “the gout” would “probably be a hell of a lot worse,” learned about the possible sale from the Herald. “It’s an outrage,” she says. “A blasphemy. That L. Ron Howard [sic] is nothing but a demigod—and you know what the Bible says about demigods.” Standing in her modest St. Alphonsus Street apartment, she then takes a tissue from her purse and polishes the gold frame around the photo of the Pope that hangs in the kitchen.
In many ways, the notion of the once mighty archdiocese selling a house of worship to Scientologists seems perverse. But there is, as Sean Cardinal O’Malley says, “a confluence of needs. I appreciate the anguish our parishioners may feel over this, but we simply need money to fulfill our mission.” The Catholic Church is in a period of deep retrenchment—closing schools, selling off churches to condo developers, and in 2007 selling the last parcel of its former chancery grounds to Boston College for $65 million. (The college, according to O’Harridan, promptly filled the main building with “orgies and wickedness,” a charge BC spokesman Jack Dunn vehemently denies. “The only thing that building is full of is tuition money,” he says.)
O’Malley claims the Mission Church sale is part of a broader “reimagining” of the religion. He says he was inspired by Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan, as part of moving City Hall to the waterfront, to make it easier for citizens to do their business with the city over the Internet. “People are so busy these days. They do their shopping on the Web, their banking—some even attend wakes on it. So it’s only a matter of time before they start transacting their spiritual business on it as well,” the cardinal says. This push will help “streamline” what he calls “the faithing experience” for his “users.” Perhaps more important, it could also alleviate the impact of the current priest shortage. “Honestly,” O’Malley sighs, “we can hardly field a softball team, much less staff an entire archdiocese.”
If the archdiocese has been forthcoming about its aims, the Scientologists remain somewhat cryptic about theirs. Still, Gerald Renna, head of the local chapter, says he sees the Mission Church as a potential inroad into a resistant community. “We’re good neighbors,” he says. “We’re not some weird cult.” Renna says the basilica will stay mostly the same, though reinforced tithing baskets with expanded capacity will be special-ordered, and the Catholic icons removed. “But that’s nothing weird. You’d get that if you sold to Baptists.”
Despite the reassurances, some Catholics are still dubious. Peggy “Sully” Sullivan of South Boston, who visits the Mission Church regularly, says, “It’s not just the building, it’s the healing power.” But Renna says that will stay intact. “We plan to harness the church’s power to destroy psychiatry, which is the cause of everything from swollen ankles to pederasty,” he says, adding that the spires would also be outfitted to transmit signals to “our allies, as we continue our struggle against Xenu, lest he attempt to unleash another wave of H-bombs and Body Thetans upon us.” Asked what any of that means, Renna replies, “Take a free stress test and find out.”
“Godless, superstitious hogwash,” snaps Sullivan as she snacks on a hot dog from Sully’s on Castle Island. “Whoa,” she says, sitting bolt upright, wide-eyed. “Doesn’t this little bit of mustard crud look like the Virgin Mother? I’d better go ask the nuns!”
More than any other single factor, says Cardinal O’Malley, it’s the increasing secularization of Boston that’s forced the archdiocese to offload the Mission Church. “The fact is, Boston can be tough on the godful,” says O’Malley. “You can’t buy a box of children’s aspirin here without someone offering you an abortion or a gay marriage. In this instance, it came down to selling to another church or to another condo developer. So we went with faith.”
John Carthas, who calls himself a “proudly lapsed” Catholic, lives in a loft in the converted Saints Peter and Paul Church, on West Broadway in South Boston—a neighborhood he calls “SoBo.” He has no problem with the sale of the Mission Church. “They deserve it. And it’s not just the sex abuse—they’re so pious, and so ostentatious in their belief. It’s unseemly,” he says, standing by his Toyota Prius, which bears a sticker reading, “YOUR SUV SUPPORTS TERROR.” “I’m not religious,” Carthas says, “but I’m attuned enough to my own spirituality to know that the Catholics’ absurdly patriarchal idea of God isn’t God. Barack Obama is.” But Carthas admits that he is slightly wary of the sudden influx of Scientologists, feeling that silent births are “sexist,” and “probably racist in some way as well.” (Counters O’Malley: “If he didn’t want Scientologists everywhere, he shouldn’t have stopped going to church.”)
According to insiders, archdiocesan properties aren’t the only ones being eyed by the Scientologists. “Ooh, I hope it’s us,” says a high-ranking Christian Science official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was seen coming out of a day spa and is “not really sure if that’s cool.” “We rented out half the Back Bay campus and sold two Mary Baker Eddy homes, and we’re still broke,” he says. “We’ll sell cheap.”
“How cheap?” says O’Malley. “Maybe we can wire up a subprime and flip it.”
“Christian Scientists?” asks O’Harridan. “Are those the ones with the bulletproof underwear?”
“No,” says the Christian Science official, “that’s Mormonism. Like Romney.”
“I thought Romney was a Scientologist,” says Sullivan.
“He’s not, but he may as well be, where he’s going,” says O’Harridan.
“Is anyone in this town interested in a substantive discussion about religion?” asks John Hennessey, a Harvard Divinity School student. “Because if not, seriously, I
may as well just go to law school.”
“Did someone just insult Islam?” asks Yousef Abou-Allaban, head of the Islamic Society of Boston.
“No, I think they were insulting Christian Science,” says the Christian Scientist.
“Ah, tomato, tomahto,” says O’Harridan. “It’s all heresy.”
Former altar boy Joe Keohane promises to say 10 Hail Marys and return to writing relatively normal columns next month. —Eds.