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Parishioners Against Closing Churches in the Camden Diocese; St. Maurice in Brooklawn and St. Anne's in Westville are upon those to be closed

By Paula Carlton

NEWS Correspondent

 When God is the referee, each team had better play the game by the rules.

So goes the clash between the Diocese of Camden and some of its parishioners over plans to reconfigure the Diocese by closing and merging parishes.

It is not a conflict made easier by the fact that both teams believe that they have God on their side.

Bishop of Camden Joseph Galante had announced his plan in April, outlining in a speech a detailed list of which churches and parishes in the Diocese's 10 deaneries would close, merge, or stand alone by the end of a proposed two-year transition.

His goal for local Deanery II is to close St. Anne, in Westville, and St. Maurice, in Brooklawn, and merge them with Annunciation Parish in Bellmawr.

Gloucester City's own St. Mary's will remain a stand-alone parish.

The parish reconfigure-ations also called for re-organizing priest assign-ments, which is of concern to clergy whose churches face closure. A new title, priest convener, will be assigned to remaining senior clergy.

In Deanery II, Father James Dabrowski of Annuciation has been named Priest Convener for the merger of Annunciation, St. Anne and St. Maurice.

The Diocese presides over six South Jersey counties: Camden, Gloucester, Atlan-tic, Cumberland, Salem, and Cape May.

Galante, a former under-secretary at the Vatican, had been named Bishop of Camden in 2004. He presides from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Con-ception in Camden, al-though major ceremonies usually take place at St. Agnes Church, Blackwood.

News of the proposed closures was widespread, but not unexpected.

It is widely believed that significant influence on Galante's goals for his diocese came from the Diocese of Boston which, like Camden, faced both grass-roots and legal opposition from parish-ioners, priests, and the public in general when Cardinal Sean O'Malley first had announced his plan in 2005.

The resulting controversy continues today, even after the Vatican recently settled a legal appeal in the Boston Diocese's favor.

Also, according to an April blog post on blogs-.fiditt.com, “The Paterson Diocese in North Jersey said they will have a similar plan of action, giving 16 parishes until June to recommend changes.”

The blogger wrote: “Catholic churches in general have been dealing with... a shortage of priests and financial problems largely because of changing dem-ographic patterns.”

Although troubles in the Camden Diocese and the resulting streamlining seem to follow a now-familiar course, Galante's proposal for merging parishes still came as a shock to many.

Blogger and Deacon Greg Kandra, who in April cited an article from the Philadelphia Inquirerdeacbench.blogspot.com, the scope of plan is likely the largest ever among the 195 Roman Catholic dio-ceses in the United States. 

So infamous has the Camden mergers become that the diocese now appears on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, stat-ing the Diocese of Camden, established by Pope Pius XI in December 1937, formed by splitting it off from the Trenton Diocese.

The oldest parish among the current 125 is St. Mary's in Gloucester City, founded in 1848.

Father Frederick Lick of St. Maurice and St. Anne said, “The merger process is just beginning.” In the meantime, “I continue to operate the parishes until the day they are closed. It could be anywhere from at least a year from now to two years from now. That's the projected time that the diocese gives to us.”

Rev. Link has received information about his parish with a philosophical calm, even though, “I don't know yet [where I will be placed].” Rev. Link, who is nearing retirement age, is certain that “it will be made known in the future.”

Concerning opposition to the mergers, he said, “There's no protest [in my parish], not that I'm aware of. Anything like that, people do on their own.”

He did say that if there is a protest in his parish, “I wouldn't be surprised.”

The only parish in the area to remain as a stand-alone is St. Mary's in Gloucester City, which has been open 159 years. It has experienced no turmoil as far as can be determined.

Annunciation, founded in 1951, is younger but still eager to continue the reconfiguration process.

In a joint statement with Father Link, Rev. Dabrowski said, “The initial meetings of the core team and the priest convener are pastoral, all about getting to know each other in the parish. These do not involve planning as much as sharing prayer and all kinds of information that values priorities in the events important to each parish, as well as clarity of roles and needs.”

Local churches may be restrained for the moment, but the Diocese cannot be deaf to the rumblings against the mergers by priests and parishioners alike throughout the six counties over which Bishop Galante presides.

Some locals are not silent.

Ken Edwards, a Deptford resident and lifelong parishioner at St. Anne, wrote a letter in the Gloucester City News titled, “Catholics should band together and unite as one.”

It also appeared online at Cleary's Notebook, www.clearysnotebook.com local resident Bill Cleary's blog and anthology of local news items.

Also, it was cited on a blog at savestmarys.net, home to a sizable number of angry parishioners and clergy of St. Mary's in Malaga, slated for closure.

Edwards wrote that his petition drive collected more than 800 signatures.

Yet, when he tried to get into diocese headquarters in Camden to deliver the petition, “I was... politely told [that] without an appointment I could not enter the building.”

Edwards said, “The guard was extremely polite and offered to deliver the package for me.... I did, however, wonder what the Bishop feared that you could not even see a secretary to try to make an appointment.”

Edwards, speaking during a telephone interview last week, said the Bishop had written: “I read your letter. Please continue in praying with me for the churches of South Jersey.”

“I found the letter a slap in the face,” Edwards said, “and I took it very per-sonally. I was very disappointed in his reactions to the letter, being a man of the cloth.”

Edwards also claimed that the Bishop is, put bluntly, a liar. He relates a story of a parish that, prior to the Bishop's announcement in April, was worried about its future. According to Edwards, the Bishop had told parishioners there, “By all means you're safe.”

But now, Edwards said, he's closing that church.

For Edwards this exemplifies what he hates most about the recon-figuration.

“My basic concern for the church is the people,” he said, citing many programs that will discontinue if the Diocese merges St. Anne with Annunciation.

“We have CCD classes for children of poor families who can't afford to pay,” he said. “I've seen drug addicts who get their benefits check and immediately go out and buy drugs. So their children don't get food. And, we feed them.”

In addition, Edwards said, St Anne's holds three bingo games each week to help “pay the bills.” He cited concerns for safety, and convenience as well.

“If we merge with Annunciation, it's a two-mile walk for parishioners with-out cars. The area's not safe,” he said, adding that this will impact elderly parishioners most of all.

They don't want to drive. They either walk, or take the bus. If St. Anne's closes, people are not going to make the extra effort to go to the nearest open parish. Instead, Edwards said, they will go to a local church, whether or not it is Catholic or another Christian denomination.

Edwards said Bishop Galante has had previous experience implementing wide-scale parish mergers and closures in the Dallas, TX, area. “In Texas, I don't know how long he was there, but to my knowledge he closed up churches and Catholic schools. A year after he came to Camden, it seems like they've opened a lot of them again.”

Concerning the overall reconfiguration in South Jersey, Edwards said, “It's not going to strengthen the church [as Galante claims], it's going to weaken it. People are losing their faith. I wish I could have the faith in the Bishop that I have [had] in [President-elect] Obama, but [Gal-ante] took that away.”

This is a sentiment echoed on many Save St. Mary’s (Malaga) blogs and other info forums on the site.

The blogger who wrote in July about Edwards' letter said, “Edwards... calls on us to withhold financial contributions to the dio-cese. We wholeheartedly concur and we're aware of many, many other Cat-holics in the diocese who feel similarly. Mr. Edwards and his parish received a two-sentence letter in response to their petition. Congratulations! You are officially a 'nuisance' to the diocese... That means you are doing the right thing.”

In the site's “Frequently Asked Questions,” a blog-ger, echoing Edwards' op-inion, accused the Bishop of egregious greed: “Most of the members of the Bishop's committees who held the fates of our parishes in their hands... have just about kept all their Parishes open.”

While many priests in contested parishes have taken a rear seat from which to watch their parishioners, Pastor Father Romanowski is an active participant in Save St. Mary's. He seemed to echo many in the Diocese at all levels when he said, “We are striving for holiness, not [trying to use] slick business techniques” to reconfigure the diocese.

The Rev. Romanowski said of some of the new diocese representatives sent to liaise with the parishes, “We're not impressed. They don't talk spiritual, they don't dress spiritual. They come up with an idea one month, the next month they'll bounce back and change their mind.”

Referring to another scandal among Catholic clergy, the blogger also wrote, “The Catholic Church should stop subsidizing pedophile priests.”

However, according to Edwards, “The Diocese has not had the sex abuse like they did in Boston and out in California. I don't believe that's why their shutting the churches. I believe it's over real estate.”

Other contributors to the Camden protests are the members of the local chapter of the Council of Parishes (COP) of Southern New Jersey, formed in May after Bishop Galante had announced his plans.

The group represents, so far, 27 Diocese parishes.

The members of COP do not pull any punches in their onslaught against the merger process.

On its website, the organization claims, “Many of the churches Galante seeks to close are historic in nature and therefore small. Since Galante prefers mega churches and desires to rid the diocese of its rich Cat-holic history and culture, the Council naturally op-poses the unnecessary and harmful merge of our parishes and closure of our churches.”

Leah Vassallo, a founding member and leader of the South Jersey COP chapter, believes, like others, that the Bishop's plan is motivated by personal, not spiritual considerations.

The St. Mary's Malaga parishioner said the local chapter formed “right around the time they made the announcements... I contacted Peter Beret in Boston. He gave me a lot of tips on how to go about fighting the mergers.”

As hard as the struggle is, Vassallo takes comfort in the concept of strength in numbers. This refers to the unity among the individuals joined in protesting the Camden mergers, but also, literally, to numbers from a study that seems to prove the opponents right in their beliefs that a corporatized diocese does not lead to the “vibrancy” that has become the Bishop's catch-phrase for the goals of merging parishes.

Vassallo said the study, published by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development (CPPCD) as part of Future Church's Save Our Parish Community project, in 1993, showed “that 40 percent of parishes that merge lose parishioners, versus only 13 percent where a pastor is shared (under clustering).”

Diocesan Director of Communications Andrew Walton said this is un-necessary, as “assets are owned by the parishes in the diocese. When parishes merge, all of the assets, as well as the liability, belong to the parishes, not the diocese.”

However, according to Vassallo, the theory is highly suspect. “They say that [we own the assets], but at the same time we're not making the decision to close the parishes.”

As such, she claimed, “The priest conveners are likely to sell those [dis-used] properties.”

Ken Edwards concurred. He wrote that he finds Galante's choice of closures highly suspect.

“It seems that money is the issue, and not the faith or belief in God,” his letter read. “In my opinion, Bishop Galante is des-troying all of this.”

Edwards said, “Most of the churches that are being closed all happen to be prime real estate areas.”

Of Walton's claim that closed parishes will retain possession of their assets, he said, “I just don't believe that. The churches won't be there. How will they get the assets? The next logical step would be the Dio-cese.”

The sale of contested properties actually became an issue before the Bishop announced the mergers.

In February 2007, Bishop Galante had sold his North Wildwood beach house for $400,000 to Rafaello Fol-lieri, an Italian business-man formerly linked to actress Anne Hathaway and recently indicted in the federal courts for fraud.

Hathaway was cleared of any suspicion of involve-ment, but the Bishop is guilty, in his opponents’ eyes of, at best, poor judgment and, at worst, “outright corruption.”

In “A Deal with the Devil” (July 15, 2008), New York Post reporters Jeanne MacIntosh and Kati Cornell wrote, “The prop-erty changed hands again [in early July 2008,] as the now-jailed Follieri, scr-ambling to raise the $21 million necessary to free him on bail on federal fraud and money-laun-dering charges, resold the house for an unknown sum.”

MacIntosh and Cornell claimed that the Bishop and Follieri shared an interest in the sale of church property, and that Galante made personal introductions to parish priests on Follieri's behalf.

Federal investigators allege that Follieri exaggerated “his ties to the Vatican in a scheme to fool investors into thinking he had first dibs on buying shuttered properties.”

They also claim that Follieri “paid two monsignors to accompany him on business trips.”

According to the re-porters, Diocesan spokes-man Walton claimed that the Bishop's office received a telephone call from the Vatican in which the Vat-ican representative asked the Diocese of Camden to be receptive to any contact by and use of the Follieri Group, believing that Follieri's company did legitimate business.

Walton said the Diocese only learned of Follieri's suspected fraud in May 2007, when his business partner, Ron Burkle, sued him. The Diocese remains unwavering in such claims of innocence, in its actions and motivations.

He added, “Certainly when you talk about the need to restructure, it is natural that there would be those opposed to it. The vast majority of parish-ioners, however, under-stand why it needs to be done.”

Walton said parishioners and existing priests, alike, were invited to give their input and insights at every stage of the plan's dev-elopment. He said the reasons for configuration are sound:

“First and foremost, [we] need to structure parishes to carry out pastoral care to the people of the Diocese. In many cases the parishes as presently configured lack the material resources that aid even the minority. By combining those par-ishes, some of which are struggling, you provide key opportunities to carry out care to the people.

“Second, there have been population changes. Catho-lics have moved from parish centers, leaving parishes with declining numbers of parishioners.

“The third factor is a decline in the number of priests available for min-istry. When we started the process in 2005, we found that by 2015 we would have half the active diocesan priests,” he said.

The Bishop, according to numerous reports and in many public addresses, said that he feels the parishioners' pain.

But, said Deacon Greg Kandra, citing in early April an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer at deacbench.blogspot.com, Galante often refers to his brother, Bill's parish in Naples, FL, as an example of the vibrancy a system of merged parishes can ac-hieve. The Bishop points to good sermons, sacred and popular music, and a slew of social events at the reconfigured parish as the keys to its success and dynamism.

If nothing else, Father Romanowski said that the diocese is guilty of uncouth behavior.

Referring to an October 19 incident at a ceremony to commission priest con-veners at St. Agnes, James Stephenson, an elderly St. Mary's parishioner carrying a protest sign that read “Keep St Mary's Open, wanted to enter the church, but was turned away by an usher who Rev. Roman-owski claimed said, “St. Mary's Malaga is not welcome here.”

He said that the usher pushed Stephenson.

In response to this report, Walton replied, “The only thing I'm aware of is that a parishioner from another parish who was not one of the conveners and not on one of the core teams or their families... tried to gain access to the commis-sioning ceremony... and persisted in attempting to gain access to the facility.”

Walton added, “Even though the event was not open to the public, the parishioner persisted in that way even after being asked not to [try to] gain access.”

Walton remains unfazed by this and other acts of civil disobedience on the part of Camden par-ishioners.

“The fact that there is opposition is healthy be-cause it indicates the com-mitment of parishioners and the love they have for their parishes,” he said. “It doesn't make it any easier. It is difficult. It certainly can be painful because parishioners are naturally attached to the parishes they love.”

There are those in the Gloucester City area who are not adamantly against the Diocese. “It is continue the parishes as usual until the mergers,” Father Link said.

Father Dabrowski, future Priest Convener for what will become Annunciation Parish, said there will be many more meetings that “involve the core team members of each parish and consultants in each parish for finance, worship, etc.”

The Rev. Dabrowski be-lieves the entire process will take between one year and 18 months. His next step was to meet with Father Link November 5.

Elsewhere in the six counties of the diocese, opponents now have their fists up and are ready for a protracted fight.

Ken Edwards recently sent a letter to the Pope detailing the 100-year history of St. Anne, and its important missionary work.

He also plans to contact the American Civil Lib-erties Union, and join the COP in “vigiling.”

He has challenged the Bishop to a debate at a time and location “of his choos-ing,” a request to which the Bishop has not responded.

“I'm not going to stop 'til I drop,” Edwards said.

The COP's Vassallo said, “Nothing has really changed, so we're con-tinuing on. We don't know that we're necessarily going to win, but at least we know we did what we could to stop something bad from happening.”

Father Romanowski con-curred: “Needless to say, we're going to stand up for what we're doing. The way of the church is not to force people to accept things. That's not good democracy, that's not good philosophy, that's not good religion, that's not good Cat-holicism. That's not the church,” he said. “That's the devil.”

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