St. Anthony Church fight rages; diocese denies harsh treatment
More than 60 Catholic faithful gathered for a candlelight vigil Sunday evening outside the now-shuttered doors of St. Anthony Church in Monongahela – praying and vowing their fight would continue against the closure of their parish.
The prayer service was held nearly eight hours after a handful of parishioners staged an overnight sit-in inside the century-old building following its final Mass on Saturday afternoon.
Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese Bishop David Zubik announced in March that St. Anthony would close – the final step of a merger with the former Transfiguration Church to form one parish: St. Damien of Molokai.
The diocese said because of dwindling numbers and an aging population, it was no longer feasible to keep two churches in the city. The diocese combined the churches into one parish in July 2011 after the churches' pastors petitioned Zubik for the merger, according to diocese spokesman, the Rev. Ron Lengwin.
When the diocese locked the doors of St. Anthony after the 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday, about 35 people remained inside. The diocese posted security guards at the exits who let people leave but not enter. Under Pennsylvania state law, the bishop is the trustee for all churches in the diocese, which owns all church property and buildings.
Lengwin confirmed the diocese hired a security firm, later determined to be U.S. Security Associates out of Bridgeville. However, Lengwin, who was at St. Anthony until just after midnight Sunday at the request of Pastor William Terza, insisted no protesters would be forcibly removed.
During Sunday's prayer service, a security guard stood approximately 70 yards away at the Rotundini Shrine on the right side of the property.
Just before noon Sunday, Laura Magone, 53, Diane Anthony, 54, and her daughter Elizabeth Anthony, 13, emerged from the church as the last of approximately a dozen people who spent the night.
Some of the protesters claimed the diocese and Terza deprived them of food, water, electricity and bathroom use. Lengwin later denied the description.
“I was told the heat was actually turned on during the night and the electric remained on,” Lengwin said Sunday evening. “None of the utilities were turned off.”
People outside the church Sunday morning could be seen passing food and other supplies through church windows to those inside.
Angelo Ripepi, 84, told the crowd Terza should be in the Gestapo and that parishioners who refused to leave were “treated like terrorists.”
Lengwin said that was not the case, adding those claims were coming from a “vocal minority.” Lengwin said that he even drove an elderly parishioner home to get his medication before allowing him to return to the church.
“I reminded some of them that we could have them arrested but we weren't going to, and (Magone) said, ‘Oh, he's threatening us,'” Lengwin said. “We made it clear they were free to leave at any time, but if you did leave, you weren't coming back in.”
Lengwin said he was disappointed in some of the “harsh, unChristian language” and referred to anonymous letters sent to the diocese on behalf of disgruntled St. Anthony parishioners.
Lengwin said although no direct threats had been made to the church, the security presence would remain at the building for the foreseeable future. Terza will remain in charge of the building locally, he confirmed.
“I understand how people feel about their church. There's a deep love for the building. They understand there are a lot of changes that take place in life,” he said.
“There are some people I admire for their passion, but there comes a turning point in your life where it comes time to move on, and I thought this was the moment and it wasn't. ... Ultimately, the church is not about buildings, it is about people and the need to come together.”
Before praying to St. Anthony and reciting the Rosary on Sunday evening, parishoner Joe Ravasio made it clear St. Anthony was “more than bricks and mortar”.
“This is your heart, soul, life, tears, blood, your mother, your father, your grandparents,” Ravasio said, asking how many countless weddings and other events took place in the stone structure behind him. “Everybody gave their last nickels and dimes to build this place. … The Bible tells us to run the race with great intentions, but you run to win the race. This is a race worth running and worth fighting for.”
Magone, Ravasio, Ripepi and other members of “Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's Church” are in the process of hiring a canon attorney in Rome and appealing the bishop's decision to close the church before the Vatican.
Lengwin said that a process started seven years ago when both churches first began mulling over a merger would best be settled sooner rather than later.
“They have a right to have a Canon lawyer and appeal to Rome and to go as far as you need to go, and we will see whether the Vatican will uphold the process (the bishop) followed,” Lengwin said.
“I believe the great majority of people are going to take over and work together to make this a wonderful parish because of what they went through to just keep a parish there and continue what Jesus would want us to do as Christians and reach out and help other people.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635. Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed to this story.
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