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Overnight protest comes to end inside closing Monongahela Catholic church

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Sunday, April 27, 2014, 12:39 p.m.

Parishioners of two Catholic churches gathered on Sunday morning to say goodbye as parishioners at a third church vowed to keep fighting to keep theirs open.

“We're not done,” Diane Anthony, 54, of New Eagle said as she stood inside St. Anthony Church in Monongahela after spending the night there.

Bishop David Zubik announced in March that St. Anthony would close and merge with St. Damien of Molokai in Monongahela. At the same time, he announced that the two churches of the Holy Cross Parish in East Pittsburgh would close and the parish will merge into Good Shepherd Parish in Braddock.

About 35 parishioners stayed inside St. Anthony after its final Mass on Saturday. The diocese locked the doors and said that anyone who left wouldn't be able to come back inside.

Ten ended up spending the night. The last three parishioners, Anthony, her daughter Elizabeth, 13, and Laura Magone, 53, of the South Hills walked out shortly before noon.

“We think we've made our point,” Magone said.

The parishioners have appealed the closing to Zubik, who has until Wednesday to respond, she said. After that, they'll take the appeal to the Vatican, she said.

Joe Ravasio, 62, of Monongahela was one of the 10 who stayed overnight. He said the diocese cut off the heat and water and wouldn't allow people to bring in food to the protesters.

“The church is your family,” he said. “There's not a good mother and dad who would think of not giving food and water to their children.”

Magone said the diocese's actions were unprecedented, but the Rev. Ronald Lengwin said what's unprecedented is for people to stay in a closed church.

“This is the first time it's ever happened in our Diocese, in my 48 years here,” said Lengwin, a spokesman for the diocese.

The diocese didn't cut off water and electricity and turned the heat back on, he said. It didn't prevent people from handing in food through a window but told the people inside that if they left to get food, they wouldn't be allowed back in, Lengwin said.

Twenty miles away in East Pittsburgh, current and former parishioners gathered peacefully to hear the final Masses at St. William and St. Helen. Several wiped away tears even as they smiled to greet each other.

Coming out of the Mass at St. William, Candy Whitney of Level Green said she and other parishioners feel like orphans, and a constant question among them is what parish they'll attend next.

“If God takes you to it, he'll get you through it,” Whitney said. “We all feel like orphans.”

Evelyn Ward, 83, of North Braddock is the same age as St. Helen. Her grandmother was among the Slovak immigrants who petitioned the church to provide a Slovak-speaking pastor for the wave of immigrants taking jobs in the steel mills and with Westinghouse.

The church started with an altar in a storeroom and grew as parishioners donated money for a building.

“They gave nickels and dimes, occasionally a quarter if you had a rich person among you,” she said.

Ken Riling of Wilkins said a group is putting together a farewell DVD that will be uploaded to Facebook and YouTube and will discuss the parish's history and its customs and traditions. They hope to find sponsors to turn St. Helen into a shrine to Slovak and Catholic history.

“We just don't want to see it torn down,” he said.

Ed Trax of North Huntingdon has been a parishioner his entire life, choosing to stay with the church he grew up in even when he moved away.

“It feels funny,” he said after the final Mass at St. Helen. “You think of the church like it's forever, and then something like this happens.”

Karen Humphrey, Evelyn Ward's daughter and the church's organist, said the final Mass and the reception afterward were bittersweet because she was seeing people who had left the parish years ago but also knew it was likely for the last time.

“It was heart-wrenching,” she said. “But we've always sung to praise the Lord, and that's what we've done today.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Total Trib Media.




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