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Catholics protest 'big fat mess'

| Thursday, June 28, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Angelo Ripepi, 82 of Monongahela (left), representing the Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's Church, talks with vicar general of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Rev. Ron Lengwin about the future of St. Anthony's at the diocese's office Downtown, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Angelo Ripepi, 82 of Monongahela (left), representing the Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's Church, talks with vicar ceneral of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Rev. Ron Lengwin about the future of St. Anthony's at the diocese's office Downtown, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Angelo Ripepi and about three dozen other members of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Monongahela came to Pittsburgh Wednesday to plead with Bishop David A. Zubik to keep their 108-year-old church open.

“We feel we have an argument,” said Ripepi, 82, a retired school teacher and chairman of the newly formed group, Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's Church. “We haven't been able to get to the bishop. We get answers from the vicar or a priest. They give us that corporate stuff — downsizing.”

The St. Anthony contingent is part of a growing number of Catholics nationwide who are taking sometimes extraordinary measures to persuade church leaders to keep open their churches.

St. Anthony's, which remains open for funerals and weddings, was merged in August with Transfiguration, another Monongahela parish, to form St. Damien of Molokai parish, named after the priest who served the leper community in Hawaii.

Zubik was out of the office, and the group met with the Rev. Ron Lengwin, vicar general, who said a decision on closing the church has not been made.

Yesterday was the first time Ray Evans, 84, has protested anything, he said, but he holds close the church where he got married 63 years ago.

“When you go there so long, it kind of grows on you,” he said.

Ripepi delivered a three-page letter for Zubik making the group's case, including its offer to provide funding to maintain the church.

“We feel we're not in a merger, we're in a takeover,” Ripepi said.

Catholics across the country are protesting the closing of churches and reorganization of parishes that church leaders maintain has been forced by declining populations, dwindling resources and a shortage of priests. More than 1,350 parishes have closed in the last decade, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. So deep are the battle lines that some parishes have broken away from their dioceses.

“It's just a big fat mess all over the country,” said Nancy S. McGrath, founder of the group, Endangered Catholics.

About two dozen people barricaded themselves inside churches in Cleveland and Akron in January to protest planned closings. The standoffs ended after Bishop Richard G. Lennon agreed to meet with the protesters and discuss their concerns. In March, the Vatican reversed Lennon's closing of 11 parishes.

“Some Catholics are opposed to the ‘McDonaldization' of churches — same size, same color, same hymns,” said McGrath, 72, of Akron who likened Lennon's reorganization plan to “ethnic cleansing.”

“They don't respect the ethnic history of the church,” she said.

Parishioners at St. Anthony's, with Italian and Slovak origins, do believe their ethnic traditions are under attack, Ripepi said. Their annual “Festa” was changed to “St. Damien's Summer Fest” because the new priest, the Rev. William Terza, thought it was too ethnic, he said.

Terza said the change better reflects the new parish, sponser of the festival. “We have a merged parish,” Terza said. “It's not their festival.”

The church-closing crisis is most acute in Rust-Belt states, where about 40 million Catholics are concentrated, said Peter Borre, chairman of the Council of Parishes, a Boston-based advocacy group for imperiled parishes.

“That's where diocese after diocese ... is showing signs of malaise,” he said from Rome, where he is representing two dozen parishes that want to stay open. “You can get a quick sugar high by selling some (parishes) off, but it's not good for the franchise.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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