What happens when a closed parish reopens its doors?

By J.D. Long-García| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Parish Life
A determined group of Catholics scored a major victory when the closing of their parishes was overturned. But getting their churches reopened was only half the battle.

St. Casimir parishioners shouted their anger at Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon during a 2009 Mass that marked the closing of their parish, which for more than 100 years had served Polish Catholics in the city of Cleveland. Every Sunday morning after the closing—for two years and nine months—parishioners met for prayer and sang Polish songs outside the chain-link fence that encircled their church building, itself a designated landmark that had served as a worship space for generations of Catholics since 1918.

And the people of St. Casimir were not alone—theirs was one of 50 parishes in the Cleveland diocese closed or merged by Lennon between 2009 and 2010. Several of the shuttered parishes, including St. Casimir, rallied their remaining members and decided to fight the closures through a canonical appeal in Rome. For three years they waited patiently, navigating the complex procedures of the canonical court while their churches remained closed and their parishioners were forced to find other places to worship.

“We stood up for what we believed was right,” says St. Casimir parishioner Stanislav Zadnik. “We feel proud that we did this. But it wasn’t easy, and we were discouraged at every turn.” Yet according to Zadnik, the community never gave up. “We believed we had a chance to win because it was so overwhelmingly unjust,” he says. “It seemed obvious that it went over the line. I thought Rome would eventually come on our side.”

Then in March 2012, in an unprecedented decision, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy overturned the closing of 13 parishes and mandated that Lennon restore them for worship. The congregation ruled that the bishop had not taken the proper steps to close those parishes. Lennon, who suggested he could have appealed the decision to the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, said he would reopen the parishes rather than prolong the process “for a number of years.” An appeal “would create more uncertainty and continue to divide our Catholic community,” the bishop said in 2012. “It’s time for peace and unity in the Diocese of Cleveland.”

That peace and unity hasn’t come overnight—and for many, it will still be a long time coming. Since the decision, the diocese and the reopened parishes have been struggling to put the pieces of their shattered communities back together.

Open and shut cases

Over the past 10 years, bishops and archbishops have ordered the closing of hundreds of Catholic parishes across the United States. Canon law grants the head of a diocese the power to close or suppress any parish under canon 515, so long as they consult their presbyteral councils.

The Archdiocese of Detroit closed 31 parishes in 1989. The Archdiocese of Chicago closed 52 in 1990, and Pittsburgh closed 89 churches from 1991 to 1994. More recently the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Fargo, among others, have initiated large-scale closures.

But canon law also grants the Catholic faithful the opportunity to defend their rights in an ecclesiastical forum. Canon 221 opened the door for the Cleveland parishioners to appeal their parish closures.

Though other cases have been filed to appeal parish closings, victories for parishioners are rare. The last time the Apostolic Signatura reversed a U.S. bishop’s decision to close a parish was in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1994, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin failed to follow the correct procedure when he didn’t consult his priests’ council in closing St. Rocco Parish. After the ruling, the cardinal simply began the process again, this time consulting his priests, and closed St. Rocco anyway.

While some of the faithful from other dioceses might look at the Cleveland case with hope that their own parish closure would be overturned, Cleveland is an outlier—at least for now. “To my knowledge, [the Cleveland case] is the most spectacular reversal of closings of Catholic parishes in America,” says Peter Borre, who heads the Council of Parishes in Boston. Borre, who has a background studying canon law, became involved in the fight to reopen parishes in his own city when the archdiocese announced a widespread closing. He is currently involved in appealing 22 cases in 11 different Northeastern and Midwestern dioceses.

Borre says that in the Cleveland case, Lennon made procedural and substantive errors in both parish restructuring and church closing, which are treated differently under canon law. Had the decisions been overturned solely on procedural grounds, as was the case with Bernardin’s closing of St. Rocco, Lennon could have simply repeated the process according to the correct procedure and closed the parishes again.

Even in cases where churches have succeeded in appealing a closure, the results have not always been what parishioners had hoped for. In some cases the bishop can reopen a church but designate that Mass only be celebrated there each year on the feast
of the church’s patron. Or the bishop may grant one-time use of the church building for the funeral Mass of a former parishioner.

St. Roch Church was one of a handful of churches closed by the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2008 that received a favorable decision from the Vatican in an appeal of the church’s closure, but the Vatican upheld the diocese’s decision to consolidate St. Roch Parish. The diocese has only allowed the church to be opened once a year and occasionally for funerals, which has been upsetting to parishioners who were hopeful that the Vatican decree meant they could once again have Mass in their former church.

AnnaMarie Robertone has been organizing a rosary every Sunday at St. Roch in the church grotto, which her uncles constructed. The church was built by Italian immigrants—her ancestors—more than 100 years ago. “The people went to work, and when they were done, they climbed the mountain and rolled down the stone for the church. And the people donated the land for it,” Robertone says. “We want the church reopened.”

It’s been difficult to see the church open only on rare occasions, she says, and it has weighed heavily on the community, who know how much their great-grandparents invested in the church. Robertone is trying to get the church shrine status, but says she really wants weekly Masses in St. Roch and for more people to attend the church. In short, she wants the church to become a parish again, but that seems unlikely to happen.

Slow comeback

Furthermore, the Cleveland case illustrates that getting a parish reopened is only the first step in a long, uphill battle. The parishes that Lennon closed were already struggling with low collections and lower attendance, and now those communities must restart from scratch. Some even need to recover sacred items like statues and monstrances that had been removed while the church was closed. In one parish, for example, returning parishioners discovered all their songbooks were gone.

Then there are the additional challenges of replacing the entire parish staff and bringing back parishioners, some of whom have moved on with their lives since their old parish shut down.

At St. Casimir, the Polish parish where some parishioners gathered to pray every week during the closure, other members haven’t exactly come storming back. The closure “drove some people away,” according to parishioner Joseph Feckanin. Since reopening they’ve had to start over with a new pastor and no staff. Those who had been meeting every Sunday are still coming to Mass, but they’re a fraction of the parishioners who used to call St. Casimir home—200 now come to a church that seats 1,200. “It’s like a city that was bombed,” Feckanin says. “People come back to their houses slowly.”

The reopened St. Mary Parish in Akron, Ohio has also had a tough time recovering. In 2009 it was merged with St. Bernard Parish, which picked up about a third of the former St. Mary parishioners. Father Dan Reed, pastor of St. Bernard, was also appointed as the new pastor of St. Mary when it reopened, and he says that only about “a dozen or so” families switched back to St. Mary. After the merger, St. Mary’s parochial school remained open and a priest continued to celebrate Mass weekly for the school, and many of those who have returned are the families that stayed connected to the parish through the school.

A group of about 120 other parishioners from St. Mary—who previously attended the parish’s Tridentine Mass— relocated to another parish and did not come back. Others haven’t returned because their former pastor did not return, Reed says. Some aren’t sure the parish will survive.

“There were reasons for closing the parish which have not changed with the Vatican’s reversal,” says Reed. “We have an opportunity, a second chance if you will, to serve Christ and bring his presence to those living in the neighborhoods that make up this parish. It’s like a new mission that looks to the future with hope, and it’ll succeed if God wills it.”

But parishioners who have stayed at St. Mary are worried about the decreasing numbers. Collections hovered around $4,500 a week before the merger, according to parishioner Greg Freidl. They’re down to $1,200 a week now. And while many longtime families have come back, the numbers are down from 650 to a little more than 100.

The parish produced 37 vocations to the priesthood and religious life over the past 20 years, says Freidl, who joined the parish in 1982 and whose children were baptized and confirmed at St. Mary. But former parishioners have moved on to other parishes, which Freidl sees as a distribution of fruits. Yet he believes St. Mary will come back, too. “We’re still there. We’re still doing the things the Blessed Mother asked of us.” 

Community disorganizing

The division and strife that can arise from parish closures and mergers—and from their reopening—is exemplified by St. Peter Parish in downtown Cleveland, one of the parishes Lennon closed in 2009 and reopened in 2012. Nancy McGrath, president of the closure protest group Code Purple, was a parishioner there for 20 years prior to the closing. Now that it’s reopened, she’s glad to be back, but others don’t feel the same way. “The St. Peter story couldn’t be more complicated,” McGrath says.

After the closure many parishioners, convinced their church would never reopen, formed the breakaway “Community of St. Peter” and continued to celebrate Mass together against the wishes of the bishop. Their pastor, Father Robert Marrone, stuck with them.

The Community of St. Peter became active in volunteering, partnering with an elementary school and working with shelter programs for the homeless. They also got involved in interfaith activities. McGrath says the Community of St. Peter, which has more than 350 members and celebrates Mass in a rented space, is thriving and active. When the original St. Peter Parish reopened, those parishioners chose not to return.

The breakaway community is not recognized as an official Catholic parish by the diocese. Marrone, who declined to comment on why they have chosen to remain a separate entity, has continued to support them. As a result, Lennon announced earlier this year that Marrone was automatically excommunicated.

Meanwhile, the official St. Peter Parish is up to 50 members. “It’s slow and tough,” says McGrath. Some have returned, some are new. McGrath, whose great-grandparents were founding members, says that one advantage the parish has is its church building, the only pre-Civil War Catholic church in the Cleveland diocese. “We have a glorious, light-filled Gothic revival building with soaring Corinthian columns and gorgeous, historic stained glass windows,” she says. “It’s a treasure. The acoustics are exceptional. Every Sunday, our dedicated group gathers for a joyous, music-filled liturgy.”

The reopening has been entrusted to Father Robert Kropac, who also serves as pastor of one of the other reopened parishes in Cleveland. Kropac, who previously headed up a parish merger outside the city, says some parishioners felt the closures were unfair, and in both of his parishes not all of the former parishioners have come back.

“People are happy the parishes are reopened now,” he says. But the closed parishes are facing the same challenges they did when the bishop closed them. The 50 or so who show up for Mass at St. Peter are a committed group, Kropac says, but it’s a challenge to rebuild with most of the community gone, and the parish can’t afford to hire staff at this point. And since he is splitting his time between the two, both parishes must deal with having only a “part-time pastor,” he says.

Getting back in business

There’s still a lot of work to be done in the reopened parishes, but Kropac is hopeful. “Reopening the parish is only part of it—it has to get to where it’s sustainable,” he says.

That will require addressing challenges like serving an aging population and the homebound who cannot attend Mass. To reach these Catholics, the parish’s approach has to change, he says. In addition, demographics have shifted—at the time of the closures, a third of the parishes in the Cleveland diocese were in the city, where only 5 percent of the faithful reside. That’s a big shift from 60 years ago, when the city was 70 percent Catholic. “We can’t continue to do things now the way we did then,” Kropac says.

Despite the formidable challenges, he sees room to grow. St. Peter parishioners reach out to the homeless and are hoping to rekindle a campus ministry program for nearby Cleveland State University. “We’re small, but excited,” Kropac says.

“An important piece of [reopening] is the attitude of the pastor toward the people and what they lived through in the shutdown and battle to save (the parish),” says McGrath. “Where there is great respect for the laity, there is an easier path ahead.”

Tom Weinek is one parishioner who has returned to St. Peter from the breakaway community. “I wanted to honor the tireless efforts of the parishioners who fought the closures,” he says. “How could you have such a passion for reopening the churches and then not come back to make it work?” Weinek also says the church building itself is key—he wanted to come back to worship God on consecrated ground.

The financial challenges have made parishioners look at what’s important. Before, the parish would routinely invite speakers, host art shows, and elaborately decorate the church. “Now we’re focusing on worship—worship and relationships,” Weinek says. “If we can survive this, I’m confident we can build a thriving community in the inner city.”

McGrath, who remains in contact with those she met while protesting the closings, believes most reopened parishes “are doing quite well,” all things considered. “This process is going to take time,” she says.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 10, pages 18-22).

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