Renegade parishioners defy order to close church

By order of the bishop of Camden, St. Mary's Roman Catholic church in Malaga should be dark and silent, its pews empty, its doors locked.

But on Tuesday, a small band of parishioners sat huddled in its unheated sanctuary, praying a defiant rosary on the first full day of a vigil they hope will keep their tiny Gloucester County parish open.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. . .," a dozen voices recited in unison.

They say they will not leave until Bishop Joseph Galante reverses his decision to dissolve their 88-year-old parish.

"If it takes six years, we'll stay six years," said parishioner Leah Vassallo, who spent the night praying in the sanctuary.

In April 2008, as part of a major restructuring across the six-county diocese, Galante ordered the 250-household parish to merge with two others to create a single, large parish by early 2011.

However, this past Nov. 9, diocesan authorities abruptly shuttered the church after discovering its aged boiler would costs thousands of dollars to repair.

"The pastor came and took the [communion hosts] out of the tabernacle and taped a note to the door, telling us we were closed," said Kathie Ramos, a parishioner for 22 years and one of the vigil-keepers. "There was no farewell Mass or anything."

During a brief tour Tuesday, Ramos, 47, opened a sacristy closet to reveal several sets of priestly vestments left behind. Another contained black cassocks and white surplices used by altar boys.

Peter Feuerherd, communications director for the 500,000-member diocese, said Tuesday that Galante is aware that parish-closings have "an emotional component" for affected Catholics, but that "there are no plans" to keep St. Mary's open.

Feuerhard also said he knew of no plans to evict the vigil-keepers and secure the little brick building, but he noted, "We're just one day into this."

There is some precedent for American Catholics using vigils in hopes of forestalling parish closings. Since 2004, members of five parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston have been occupying their churches around the clock

On Tuesday, however, a spokesman for the archdiocese announced that Pope Benedict XVI had rejected their appeals to keep them open.

The vigil-keepers at St. Mary's say they did not break into the church but rather found an unlocked door Monday and let themselves in.

"Was it the wind? Was it the work of the Holy Spirit?" Ramos asked with a shrug. "We don't know."

On Tuesday, the small sacristy behind the sanctuary contained a cot, two sleeping bags, and two space heaters. Coffee simmered in pots beside the remains of a half-eaten bundt cake.

Feuerhard said the diocese had anticipated some members might occupy the church.

Founded in 1922 as a parish serving mostly immigrant Italian farm workers, St. Mary's is known locally for the piety of its congregation.

Across the street from the church, parishioners maintain a half-acre "rosary garden" dotted with many large statues of Mary, Jesus and saints; tables and chairs, some in the shape of angel wings; kneelers, and 14 wooden stations of the cross memorializing Jesus' crucifixion.

In the next few weeks, St. Mary's is due to become part of a new parish, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, formed out of three dissolved parishes.

Blessed Sacrament, with about 2,400 households, will encompass St. Mary's, Queen of Angels in Buena, and St. Rose of Lima in Newfield, where it will be centered.

Galante, a bishop in Texas for many years before coming to Camden in 2004, has said he believes larger parishes can attain the "vibrancy" needed to attract and engage members, especially in an era of declining Mass attendance and parish involvement.

Several vigil-keepers scoffed at that idea, however, and described their parish as exceptionally devout and engaging. "The Lord is present here," said Jennifer Cipollone, 36. "You feel it deep in your soul.

She and others voiced suspicions that the diocese is closing St. Mary's because it wants to claim a $600,000 endowment left to the parish a few years ago by a deceased parishioner, Theresa DiMatteo.The diocese did not return phone calls requesting comment on that assertion.

According to Vassallo, who is a lawyer, DiMatteo's will stipulated that the money be used only for construction of a new church building for St. Mary's, or for maintenance and repairs of the existing building, which has just 27 pews. Vassallo promised a legal challenge if the diocese appropriates the money.

"They contrived the heater repair as a pretext for closing us," she said.

Feuerherd, who began work as the diocese's communications Monday, said earlier that the need for a new boiler merely "precipitated the process" of closing the parish.

Although a parishioner had offered to pay the approximately $8,700 need to fix it, diocesan officials decided it would be unfair to the donor to take his money "since the church was going to be closed."

Cippolone and the others say that isn't going to happen."

"I believe this is our church, unrightly taken from us," she said. "I plan to stay here."

 


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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