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Group walk through Munhall to support Catholic traditions

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 3:46 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
The Society of St. Pius X, who will conduct a rosary walk on Saturday, have been unsuccessful in their attempt to purchase the former St. Michael Church.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
The Church of St. Michael, as enscribed above its entryway in Slovak, has been subject to a real estate tug-of-war between the Society of St. Pius X and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in recent years.

For the second straight year, members of an embattled conservative Catholic organization, the Society of St. Pius X, will take to the streets of Munhall for a march that will go past a vacant church they once hoped would be their future home.

Parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima in Carnegie will celebrate a Latin Solemn High Mass at 9 a.m. on Saturday in St. Margaret Catholic Church along E. Tenth Street, then process while praying the 15 decades of the rosary. Although the march will pass the old St. Michael Church along E. Ninth Avenue — a building the parish was eager to purchase in 2011 until rebuffed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh — the Rev. Patrick Rutledge, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, said the event is far from a protest.

“It's something we're doing independently of that whole situation,” said Rutledge, noting his parish had similar ceremonies commemorating the purported appearance of the Virgin Mary to shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, in October 1917.

“The intention is to gain the attention of other Catholics,” Rutledge said. “It's to make the Blessed Virgin Mary known publicly and to encourage people to pray their rosaries.”

Rutledge said the main reason the event returns to Munhall is supportive contacts such as Mayor Raymond Bodnar, and because the diocese reportedly backed out of an agreement to allow the service to take place at St. Anthony's Chapel in Pittsburgh.

“The diocese had said it would be fine,” Rutledge said. “I asked for that permission in writing and they gave it to us. But then a few weeks later, they called us back and said, ‘You can't use it now.' It was clear that it was because we're not in good standing with the diocese.”

It's a battle the Society of St. Pius X is accustomed to fighting. Founded in 1970 by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the society was created to continue the practices and beliefs of the traditional Latin Tridentine Mass just as the Second Vatican Council ruled it could no longer be celebrated.

“Our whole goal is to simply pass on the Catholic tradition, saying the same Mass the church has offered since the sixth and seventh centuries and to pass on the traditional doctrine which has been tainted in recent years,” Rutledge said. “It's really about how we can continue to be Catholic and keep our Catholic identity without being forced into a Mass and doctrine that simply aren't Catholic.”

Since the Vatican first imposed sanctions on the group in 1976, the Society of St. Pius X has been on uncertain terms with the church. Our Lady of Fatima has maintained a strained relationship with the Pittsburgh diocese largely due to the debate over whether it's considered schismatic — or a splinter group that deviated from the accepted practices of the Catholic church.

That uncertainty was made clear two years ago when the U.S. society superior the Rev. Arnaud Rostand met with Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik to discuss purchasing St. Michael Church, which the diocese vacated in 2009. Our Lady of Fatima has been housed in a school building for the past 20 years.

Rutledge said Rostand was prepared to offer the $250,000 asking price for St. Michael but was told “absolutely not.” He said the price is now down to $150,000.

Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh spokesman the Very Rev. Ron Lengwin said there have never been any “real” offers on the building.

“We choose not to sell any of our buildings to a group that was formerly a member of the Catholic church but then broke away,” Lengwin said. “If a group is a schismatic group, we choose not to sell to them.”

Although, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI lifted an excommunication against the Society and liberalized use of the Latin Mass it celebrates, the Society still struggles to gain cooperation from the Catholic Church — and that rift is one reason St. Michael remains shuttered.

Bodnar said he would like nothing more than to see Our Lady of Fatima move into the building. “I've tried like heck to get the Catholic diocese to sell it. What do I care who is in a building? If they were allowed in, it means money to us. It's disappointing to me because it's holding up a nice development.”

Developer Walter Viola began purchasing properties along E. Ninth and E. Eighth avenues in 2009 in an effort to gentrify the neighborhood. He already owns the St. Michael school building and plans to turn it into a restaurant and loft apartments. He also owns the rectory and convent, which would house luxury apartments.

Viola, a Catholic who supports the efforts of Our Lady of Fatima to move into the church, said provisions built into the purchase agreement that give the diocese control of the future use of the desanctified church will prevent anyone from buying the building. The provisions dictate the building may not be used for the sale of alcoholic beverages; for any type of adult entertainment; as a church for any type of religious worship; or for any use that is “inconsistent with the teaching and beliefs of the Catholic faith” as solely determined by the bishop.

“I get the objection to strip clubs and alcohol,” Viola said. “But why not sell it to be used as a church? They're basically saying, ‘We're going to let that property sit vacant and crumble to the ground.'”

Viola cited two instances where the diocese has sold former churches to organizations of other denominations: St. Joseph in Mount Oliver was sold to a Baptist group and St. Canice in Knoxville was sold to a Lutheran denomination. However, Lengwin justified those sales by reiterating those groups are not schismatic in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Viola and Bodnar continue reaching out to the diocese and the Vatican in hopes of overruling the bishop's decision. A response from the Ecclesia Dei received in 2011 said a Pontifical Commission was “making the necessary enquiries,” but Viola said there's been no movement since then.

“I don't want to get into a fight with the diocese,” Viola said. “I just want to see that church get reopened as a church as it was meant to and to get the gentrification needed in Munhall.”

Rutledge, who said his parish has looked into several other buildings to move into, echoes Viola's sentiment.

“The people who built this church in the '20s are people who attended the exact same Mass I say,” Rutledge said. “To think such a church can't be returned to the use it was built for, that's a question of justice.”

Although he doesn't expect this weekend's march to do anything to sway the ruling of the diocese, Rutledge has faith that a higher power eventually will intervene.

“We know that if Our Lady wants us to have the church, something will happen,” he said. “Just as the Waterfront has brought business life back, we hope occupying that church would bring not just the economic life back to Munhall, but a spiritual life as well.”

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or

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