By Paula Carlton
(Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series about the Diocese of Camden’s plan to reduce the number of parishes from 124 to 68, with 107 Church/Worship sites). Source Gloucester City News
The Camden Diocese is closing and merging par-ishes, and also trying to consolidate Catholic ele-mentary schools, as part of its plan to make “vibrant parishes,” account for the lack of priests, and to save money.
Spokesperson Andrew Walton said a major study showed six priorities to invigorate parish life, and that “Many parishes lacked the (financial) resources to advance those six pastoral priorities.”
Bishop Joseph Galante is expected to announce the final merger plans within the next month.
Meanwhile, in Camden County, which he said has a declining Catholic pop-ulation, the Diocese has already closed Annun-ciation School in Bell-mawr.
Also, they had developed plans to merge St. Mary School, Gloucester City, St. Theresa School, Runne-mede, and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Barrington, into one school at a renovated Annun-ciation for the 2010 school year.
However, after a major effort by leaders of St. Mary School, the diocese has decided to keep St. Mary open.
Dawn Burkhardt, who is spearheading various fund raising drives, said en-rollment at the oldest school in the Camden Diocese (150 years young) is at a solid 185 students.
The school is considering starting a $300 for 300 businesses and organi-zations drive, something that has been very successful at Sacred Heart School in Camden.
A Dominican Sisters Fund has already been established, with $15,000 Burkhardt said.
The annual Fund Drive begins in August, and the school hopes to set up an endowment fund for the future. A Tuition Assistance financial aid program already exists.
“We need as many people as possible to work toward establishing this found-ation,” Burkhardt told a group of 100 parents, teachers and sisters at a special meeting two weeks ago in St. Mary Church.
“We’re staying where we are. Thank God. There are no more rumors,” she said, adding that the enthusiasm, depth of presentation to the Diocese, and the scope of plans for the future of St. Mary School helped convince the diocese to keep St. Mary School open.
Meanwhile, many parish-ioners of closing and mer-ging parishes face daunting prospects. Some St. Vin-cent Palloti parishioners in Haddon Township are waiting for the Vatican to rule on their appeal to keep the parish open.
As St. Vincent's appeal and St. Teresa's meeting make clear, St. Mary's Malaga, while at the forefront of the conflict, is not totally alone. On Feb. 11, SSMM posted a link to an Atlantic City Press article by reporter Rob Spahr, “Massive turnout last night at St. Nicholas Parish meeting.”
The article stated that approximately 140 parish-ioners at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Egg Harbor City met to discuss ways to save the parish, which is expected to merge with Church of the Assumption in Gal-loway Township.
The new parish, based in Galloway, will receive a new name, but both church buildings will retain their existing names. St. Nich-olas intends to cater to Hispanic-speaking parish-ioners, with Mass cel-ebrated in Spanish only, Walton said.
The article also reported that St. Nicholas already has lost its catechism classes and resident priest, who was not replaced after he left in June to serve in Europe as an Army chaplain.
In contrast, St. Jude's in Blackwood, established in 1959, is thriving. Spoke-sman John Sendman, one of the original members of the parish, said that is why the diocese wants to merge his church with nearby St. Agnes, the location of many diocese social and spiritual functions.
Although it uses Black-wood as its postal address, Sendman said St. Agnes is, in fact, located in Blen-heim.
Besides its Blackwood heritage, St. Jude's boasts a history of financial health that any church would envy: debt-free with over $400,000 in assets, despite generous grants to parishioners who left to start parishes of their own.
In 1967, St. Jude's helped 250 families form St Charles Borromeo, slated to remain open in the current reconfiguration, in Sicklerville. At another time, they gave 450 families the funds to start both Peter and Paul and Holy Family parishes in Turnersville. At that time, St. Jude's retained 400 of its member families.
According to Sendman, St. Agnes' pastor told St. Jude's parishioners during a Nov. 2008 meeting that the former held approximately $600,000 in debt.
Sendman now believes that, while the debt has been reduced, a substantial portion remains out-standing.
“If we merge with them,” he claimed, “they can use our money to pay down their debt.”
St. Jude's has been protesting in earnest ¾ with advice from COPSJ ¾ for about four months, and they are preparing an appeal to the Vatican. They also have been picketing events at the diocese's retreat house, St. Pius X Spiritual Life Center, on the campus of Camden County College.
But, Sendman said they have been against Bishop Galante's plan from the start. He and fellow parishioners were shocked and angry because, Send-man alleged, the bishop, during his “Speak Up” sessions held with each parish in the diocese prior to the development of the reconfiguration plan, never made reference to such an intention.
Robert Walsh also be-lieves that the bishop has betrayed the trust of diocese parishioners.
Walsh, another COPSJ cofounder, and some of his fellow parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Pitman have long been opposed to the proposed merger with Our Lady of Lourdes in Glassboro.
Walsh was involved in the reconfiguration process long before there was a process. He says he participated in deanery meetings and met with the bishop personally several times.
During initial meetings with Walsh and others, “The tone he (the bishop) presented was that we would explore the different options to make our parishes more dynamic and to enhance services. Nowhere was it presented at the beginning that mergers or closures might become considerations.”
According to Walsh, “It wasn't until approximately October 2007 [that recon-figuration] was presented in an aggressive way. Even though we spoke through the deanery, I felt as though the decision had already been made. In reality, [the bishop] was simply trying to calm people down when presenting information.”
Based on this experience, Walsh said, “I do not believe the bishop has been forthright.”
Another critical driver in Walsh's opposition is what he said is the bishop's inconsistent stance on solving the priest shortage.
“One of the first premises [the bishop] used was the insufficient quantity [of priests]... available immed-iately and by 2008,” he claimed. “So what we did at OLQP was obtain a congregation of foreign priests who would sup-plement the priest short-age.”
OLQP suggested the congregation in a 60-page white paper that Walsh and other parishioners sub-mitted to the diocese in summer 2007.
OLQP used this forum to demonstrate how the parish could remain “viable,” presenting financial sta-tistics, demographics, des-criptions of the parish's 44 different ministries, and a history of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (the order of the invited foreign priests) along with papal approval of the priests' congregation.
The Carmelites originated in India but now have facilities in Brooklyn, NY; Liberty, KY; Dallas, Los Angeles, and Canada. In total, the priests serve in 31 different countries.
The bishop's reply, in a two-page letter dated June 10, 2008, was that bringing in foreign/supplemental clergy would be of no value in ending the priest shortage.
“I clearly knew at that point,” Walsh said, “that everything he'd presented to us was a facade.”
Walsh pursued the subject during an October 2008 meeting in Camden with the bishop and several diocesan representatives.
“I raised again [the bishop's] lack of con-tinuity,” he said, “in hiring outside or foreign priests. I said that it was really disheartening to people. [The] bishop claimed that it was hard to bring in foreign priests due to homeland security con-cerns. This sounds fishy, because it has been done before; and when pointed out, the bishop had no answer.”
As proof of his assertion, Walsh said, “He (the bishop) has invited outside priests in Virginia to take over his cathedral in Camden,” adding that if the diocesan seat requires and uses assistance from “out-side priests,” the parishes in the diocese should be permitted to do likewise.
Further evidence appeared in an article posted on the diocesan web site January 8. It included a photograph from an August 21, 2008, dinner the bishop gave in honor of a group of in-ternational priests currently serving the diocese and reported, “International priests serve.... as parochial vicars, hospital chaplains, and [in] other capacities assisting parishes, and minister to migrant farm workers throughout the summer....”
The diocese stated online that: “With the number of new priests ordained in the United States failing to keep pace with the number of priests who no longer are in ministry through death or retirement, and with Catholic populations becoming more diverse, many United States dioceses are being assisted by foreign born-priests who come to the United States on loan from their home dioceses or religious congregations.”
Elsewhere on the web site, the diocese reported that it has employed the Sisters of Mary Immac-ulate Nyeri, a Kenyan order of nuns, for a decade.
Walsh also objected to the bishop's claim that the Carmelites are not a viable option because they do not speak Spanish. This, Wal-ton alleged, is untrue. He also says that at one time diocesan representatives told OLQP that the parish was a financial liability. In fact, Walsh says, the parish has over $1 million at its disposal.
Their citizenship status aside, The Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Nyeri have become the center of a controversy over a fiercely criticized real estate pur-chase in July 2008 by the diocese of what, by most accounts, is a luxury pro-perty at 425 Langley Road, Pittsgrove, Salem County, intended to house five nuns from the Kenyan order.
According to tax records, the property sold for $800,000.
This follows on the heels of the scandal over Bishop Galante's sale of his $400,000 North Wildwood beach house to now-convicted Italian financier Raffaello Follieri, former boyfriend of actress Anne Hathaway.
Follieri was sentenced in October 2008 to 54 months in jail and three years' probation. Part of the case against Follieri was his claim to be acting in tandem with the Vatican.
According to an article on the diocese web site, the Sisters of Mary Immac-ulate of Nyeri “have served over the last decade at Mater Dei Nursing Home in Elmer, [and] are making plans to expand their presence here in South Jersey.”
The property's amenities, as listed in its original listing with Budd Realty, include a large foyer, up-scale kitchen, game room with wet bar, sunroom, circular driveway with fountain, three-car parking area, detached two-car garage, and a six-stall paddock.
Originally valued at $1.5 million, its former owners, a Catholic family, offered to let the diocese purchase it for $800,000. The article reported that “the diocese hope[s] to accommodate the growing needs of the sisters, while also securing the property for future use, possibly as a retreat cen-ter.”
The Kenyan order of nuns, which originated in Nyeri in 1918 and serves close to home in the East African nations of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, totals approximately 400 worldwide. The order ar-rived in the United States 10 years ago to serve in South Jersey, later expand-ing its ministry to New York. According to the article, the order intends to make the Diocese of Camden its U.S. head-quarters.
House of Cards
To the already irritated souls of its critics, the flower bouquet that is the Pittsgrove house has a great deal of thorns hidden in it.
Leah Vassallo said, “We believe that [the Kenyan nuns are] a cover. The house stayed empty from the time of purchase; then, when the story broke, the nuns from Kenya were moved in.”
Vassallo, among many others, says that there is an existing convent at Mater Dei with only one nun residing there.
“My understanding is that it has room for 10,” she said, “and a chapel.”
Reportedly, the diocese also has expanded an existing facility in Elmer by purchasing the house next door.
So incensed are Vassallo and fellow critics of the purchase that they created a new section, “Following the Money Trail,” on SSMM's web site. On March 16, a blogger wrote, “If five religious sisters warrant... an $800,000 ex-penditure, then we the Catholic faithful have a right to worship in the churches our ancestors built.... Many if not most of the churches that Galante seeks to close are financially solvent[.]”
Adds OLQP's Robert Walsh, [The money for the purchase] could easily have gone into feeding the poor in Camden, Bridgeton, Gloucester City, and Vineland.”
According to a March 16 post on SSMM, diocese spokesman Andrew Wal-ton, in a recent Atlantic City Press article, re-portedly claimed that the property's location and style were suitable for use as a convent for an expanding order. The blogger says that a similar article appeared in the New York City-based Newsday.
Walton is also alleged to have defined a vow of poverty as a choice of how to live, as opposed to where to to live.
Despite the nuns' decade-long presence in the diocese, Walton reportedly commented on the issue of race, saying he believes that some people think the luxury property is dis-proportionately opulent for a group of African nuns.
Whatever the explanation, Vassallo said, “The diocese is spending enormous sums of money on impracticable things. Our understanding was that the property would either be a re-tirement home for the bishop or priests. The ex-travagance shows how out of touch with people and reality the diocese is.”
According to a February 27 article in the Catholic Star Herald, the power of the Bishop's watchword, “vibrancy”¾which he defines as a large number of paid professional lay ministers in each parish ¾ has spilled over into other dioceses worldwide.
Pope Benedict held up the Diocese of Camden's re-configuration plans as the model the Bishops of Nigeria should follow in planning and training efforts.
A similar article ran sim-ultaneously in the Salem Today's Sunbeam. Leah Vassallo addressed the time line for the parish mergers, saying she has no problem with merging or closing parishes that express a desire to do so.
Vassallo also said that if the mergers in the future proved successful, resist-ance to the entire plan would decrease signif-icantly. However, that has yet to occur.
In her conversations with parishioners at the previous mergers of St. Michael and Our Lady of Victories in Minotola/Landisville; St. Mary's and Our Lady of Pompeii in Vineland; and Sacred Heart and St. Lucy in Cedarbrook/Blue Anc-hor, Vassallo said that all report having a horrible and traumatic experience from which, years later, they have yet to fully recover.
If these mergers, effected “under ideal circum-stances,” were unsuccess-ful, Vassallo asked, what will happen to the parishes under current threat?
(Editor’s note: This article will continue in next week’s Gloucester City News.) source Gloucester City News