2008 SOPC News

Boston Archdiocese memo disputed

In January, the Boston Archdiocese sent a memo to priests saying it is spending $880,000 per year to maintain churches originally slated to close but now kept open because of pending civil and canonical appeals and parishioner vigils.  

But Lorenzo Grassi reported that the vigil committee for Our Lady of Mount Carmel has paid its own heating fuel for over three years. Another Boston activist, Arthur McCaffrey pointed out that “a major reason why the Archdiocese continues to pay bills for closed parishes (despite offers from vigillers to pay their own bills) is that transfer of utility bills to customers is recognition of property ownership by the customers, or at least legitimate tenancy.”

Peter Borre was quoted in the Globe article saying, “Parishioners were told during reconfiguration that all monies raised from the closing of parishes would be used for the benefit of the parishes, but close to half of the proceeds were used for [archdiocesan] overhead.” Borre is co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, a coalition of Catholics opposed to the church closings.

The memo to Boston priests also said that the archdiocese, which closed some 75 parishes since 2004, realized just $62.7 million from the sale of closed parishes, much less that the several hundred million originally anticipated. The archdiocese still has 22 unsold properties - including 14 tied up by challenges - that would be worth an estimated $31 million if sold. It is not clear how long the civil and canonical appeals will take.  (Boston Globe 1/18/08 and Internet Reports)

In New Orleans, LA, parishioners from St. Henry. Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Francis de Sales parishes began around the clock prayer vigils

The vigils began in early November to forestall closure orders from the Archdiocese.  Two parishes filed appeals with the Vatican. “We had direct conversations with the archbishop early on,” says Larry Schmidt, an urban planner and parish leader at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a church on the National Register of Historic Places. “We were clearly told, if you meet the [archdiocese’s] benchmarks you will not be closed. We exceeded those benchmarks. We are healthier financially than we’ve ever been. That’s the devastating part of this decision — that we were lied to.” (National Catholic Reporter, and Jason Berry article in The Gambit)

In the Toledo diocese, a group of ex-parishioners from a closed Catholic church in Kansas, OH, asked the Ohio 3rd Court of Appeals to remove Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair as trustee of the former church’s property and finances.

At an October 7th hearing former parishioners argued that the bishop failed to act in their best interests. Nicholas Pittner, representing the St. James Parish ex-members, and an outside expert both said the case could set precedent if it restricts Catholic bishops’ ability to sell property and transfer funds of parishes - closed or otherwise - in Ohio and possibly nationwide. Mr. Pittner, of the Columbus firm of Bricker & Eckler, told the appellate court that the St. James situation was not the typical court case of a disaffected faction seeking ownership of church property after a schism. “In this case, the church left the plaintiffs; the plaintiffs did not leave the church,” he said. (The Lima News)

An Allentown, Pa organization calling itself the Coalition of Suppressed Parishes is asking the diocese for transparency regarding implementation of diocesan synod recommendations about which parishes should close;

Financial disclosure about money from the closed parishes, the sale of religious artifacts and the salaries of diocesan employees, including that of Bishop Edward P. Cullen. A spokesman for the diocese denied the reason for the closures was financial, citing a serious priest shortage, and promised financial information will be given to newly formed finance committees at the merged parishes.    Forty-seven churches were recently closed throughout the five-county diocese. Fourteen parishes have appeals pending at the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome. On November 11 about 50 members of the group prayed and marched in front of the bishop’s residence.  One of the group’s leaders, Joseph Fuisz, a graduate of Yale University and the University of Columbia Law School, stated the group may consider legal action. (Allentown Republican Herald)

Three new organizations are appealing scores of parish closings in Allentown, Camden and New Orleans.

Nationally this makes a total of fifteen organized groups and designated websites working to preserve parishes. Peter Borré of Boston’s Council of Parishes is providing advice and organizing support to new groups. (See ParishWatch at www.futurechurch.org)

Allentown, PA news\

After the Allentown diocese began closing some 47 parishes, St. Joseph parishioner, Joseph Fuisz organized a group called The Coalition of Churches.  Fuisz says: “We believe that any parish that will be responsibly maintained by its parish community should be permitted to remain open.”  Newspaper accounts report parishioners from 22 parishes plan to appeal. Fuisz and others were especially offended by a diocesan email describing some parishes as “hot properties” because of their proximity to a popular casino.

Parishioners Win Hearing in New Orleans

As the New Orleans Archdiocese moves to close 18 parishes, a group called No Church Closings is working to keep parishes open. At least four parishes are appealing. On August 14 the group staged a demonstration at the chancery and unexpectedly won a hearing with Bishop Alfred Hughes who promised to consider their request to use lay people for the administrative functions of parishes including finances and capital campaigns. “Because the Archdiocese is saying there are not enough priests, then we’ll make it easier for priests to only be priests,” said Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioner Cheron Brylski.  “There is a national trend, but the national trend also shows that there are creative ways to deal with the priest shortage by involving the laity more in using deacons in different ways, sharing priests between churches, and there have been several proposals that recognize this,” said St. Henry parishioner Robert Morton. (As quoted on wwwltv 7/16/08).  Unfortunately on August 16, Bishop Hughes issued a statement rejecting the group’s suggestions.  Parishioners plan to appeal.

Camden Bishop Linked To Jailed Land Speculator

After Camden Bishop Joseph Galante announced plans to close 66 of the diocese’s 124 parishes, a group of parishioners formed a new organization, The Council of Parishes, New Jersey. The group’s website says the Council represents 27 parishes throughout the Diocese of Camden. (http://www.councilofparishes.net)

The situation deteriorated after a July 15 New York Post article detailed Bishop Galante’s link to Raffaello Follieri, who has been jailed since early July on federal fraud and money-laundering charges, in a complicated scheme to buy up Catholic churches with investor money.  On July 16, Newsday quoted diocese spokesman Andrew Walton who said that in 2004, “The bishop was contacted and encouraged by the Vatican to use the Follieri group where it made sense - if it made sense locally in our own diocese.”  Even so, he said, the diocese never sold property to Follieri, though Galante last year sold his personal home on the Jersey shore to a partnership controlled by Follieri for $400,000, which was $100,000 less than the bishop asked when he put the property on the market.

In response, The Council of Parishes in New Jersey issued a press release demanding a halt to church and school closings saying: “Many Catholics in the Diocese of Camden have been skeptical of the motivations behind the Bishop’s plan to merge 96 parishes into 38 and close many churches in the process... [the mergers] raised questions based on the appearance that churches situated on valuable real estate were particularly targeted for closure, even where such churches were flourishing both spiritually and financially.”

Dioceses List Reasons for Closings

Diocesan officials in Camden and Allentown say the priest shortage, demographic changes and financial issues necessitated the changes. In addition to the priest shortage, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Even though it is currently listed as the fastest growing city in the United States, the population is just half of what is was pre Katrina.

Even while many U.S. Bishops choose heartbreaking corporate models for downsizing parishes, other episcopal and lay leaders employ creative and successful strategies for keeping parishes open. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and coalitions of parishioners in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York, are providing positive models for what concerned Catholics might do nationwide. Here are their stories:

Parish Helping Parish

For fifteen years, the archdiocese of Los Angeles has conducted an annual appeal asking all parishes to support the “Together in Mission” fund to subsidize financially disadvantaged parishes and schools. In 2007, the archdiocese collected more than $188 million dollars for this purpose. Diocesan leaders attribute the program’s success to “an amazing amount of lay involvement from the most comfortable to the most humble” and the "tremendous amount of cooperation and full support and education on the part of the pastors.” “Otherwise,” said annual appeal director Joseph Hindley, “the parishes and schools [receiving subsidies] would be in very serious financial problems. We’d be closing them or close to it.”

Hindley noted that the archdiocesan program “is the only annual appeal in the entire nation that is used exclusively and restricted exclusively for the use of subsidized parishes and schools,” and that administrative costs at 11 percent are among the lowest of nonprofit fundraising programs nationally. (The Tidings, January 18, 2008).

Sacred Heart Wilkes-Barre Foundation Inc

Parishioners of the Sacred Heart - St. John Parish in Wilkes-Barre PA developed a comprehensive ten-year plan to restore the church and school and pay off the existing debt owed to the diocese after learning of the deterioration of their church. Though the plan was supported by parishioners, the pastor and bishop did not believe any money should be raised to save the church. In October 2007, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the Scranton diocese, a core group of concerned parishioners established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, the Sacred Heart Wilkes-Barre Foundation Inc.

According to the Foundation website, parishioners established the nonprofit after observing that funds were being “transferred from the parish to the diocese through excessive and unfair assessments, creating a bleak financial picture of the parish.” The Foundation pointed to an unusually high diocesan school subsidy assessment, so that of every dollar collected from the parish 62 cents went to the diocese and only 32 cents stayed in the parish.  By comparison, most parishes in the diocese kept 66 to 81cents of every dollar collected.

In February 2008, after the parishioner-run Foundation contacted the media and developed a website presenting their plight, diocesan officials finally met with them in a meeting described as “productive” and “a first step in resolving the many issues that have been raised.”  (For more info visit www.shwbfoundation.com).

Historic Landmark Designation

After learning of Bishop Edward Kmiec’s plan to close Holy Trinity and Sacred Heart parishes in Niagara Falls,  parish leaders sought historic landmark designation to protect the buildings from being altered or demolished. In February, the historic designation was granted to Holy Trinity, to the relief of Steve Dojka whose great-grandfather was among the 21 original founders of the parish. In a January interview with the Niagara Gazette, Dojka said parishioners were hoping to continue worshiping in the church and bring in nonprofit organizations to utilize other parish buildings.

According to press reports, at least fifteen parishes nationwide have filed canonical appeals that are pending in Rome:

That includes ten in Boston, two in Buffalo, one in Syracuse, and two in New York City.  Three additional parishes have reportedly not yet filed but plan to.  

Vatican Denies One Boston Appeal

On February 1, a panel of judges from the Vatican's highest tribunal refused an appeal brought by parishioners at St. Jeanne D’Arc  parish which was closed four years ago. According to The Boston Globe , Catholics fighting to keep parishes open, fear the decision indicates how the Vatican will decide nine other appeals brought in response to the 2004 Archdiocesan decision to close over 80 parishes.  Five closed parishes have been occupied by protesters for 40 months.

The legal argument presented by the archdiocese defended the closing by noting that it was in the context of potential financial ruin of the archdioceses owing to the sex abuse crisis:  that all actions of this process of reconfiguration and ‘closing of parishes’ are to be understood, not excluding the suppression of wealthy parishes, not excluding the suppression of parishes of maximum vitality, not excluding the giving of goods of extinct parishes to the archdiocese.

St. Jeanne D’Arc parishioners have appealed to the full tribunal and issued a public statement which said in part:

 The Vatican panel’s decision of February 1 has tacitly endorsed the Archdiocese of Boston’s policy of willfully disregarding the basic rights of parishes under canon law.  Ste Jeanne d’Arc’s parishioners will continue their struggle by taking this last step in the Vatican’s arduous legal  process, not only to restore their own parish, but to create legal precedent on behalf of all Catholic parishioners throughout America. (full statement available at www.futurechurch.org)

Peter Borre, the chairman of the Council of Parishes, decried the ruling, saying, "This tells Catholic America that no parish is safe - it means that under financial duress, any bishop can appropriate any parish, and that's a big issue."

Buffalo Parishes Appeal

On Feb 20, The Buffalo News reported that parishioners of St. Mary Catholic Church in Lockport, NY and St. Adalbert in Buffalo, NY have filed formal canonical appeals to keep their churches open. Members from at least three other parishes are seriously considering joining them.  Unfortunately, the odds are against their success, said Charles Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation, a non-profit organization that often represents lay people in church disputes.  “I wish it were not so”, he said.  “It’s the lay parishioners who are asked to pay the bills. Why shouldn’t they have at least some say? I’m terribly sorry church law does not provide more protection for parishioners.” [ Bill…St. Adelbert’s appeal was denied by the tribunal]