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After losing church, parish may be dissolved

| Monday, May 19, 2003

MOUNT PLEASANT - A Roman Catholic parish that lost its church to the wrecking ball could be dissolved amid mounting debts and declining revenues.

"It should be no surprise to anyone. The end is here," said the Rev. Michael Matusak, administrator of the Transfiguration Roman Catholic parish in Mount Pleasant.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled group of parishioners is hoping to replace the church founded by their Polish ancestors more than 100 years ago by wooing a priest from outside the Diocese of Greensburg to lead a new congregation. They would meet in a building yet to be decided upon.

A bitter battle to stop the church building's demolition in February divided parishioners in this community of roughly 4,700. Some have been voicing their displeasure by withholding donations. The Transfiguration parishioners may attend services in the St. Pius X or Visitation churches in the borough.

Transfiguration parish has seen a "serious decline" in weekly collections since the church building was closed last year, Matusak said. Weekly attendance by Transfiguration members is off 50 percent and some $32,032 in bills are unpaid.

Year-to-date collection plate revenue is down more than $35,000, Matusak said.

That led the parish's pastoral and finance councils to conclude that the parish should be suppressed, a recommendation that will be presented Tuesday to Bishop Anthony G. Bosco and the Priests' Council, a clerical group that advises the bishop.

A decision is not expected immediately.

Transfiguration Church was closed in September 2002 after structural engineers determined the building was unsafe and could collapse. When the cost of repairs climbed to $2 million, the decision was made to raze the building. The price tag for tearing down the church was $92,500.

Transfiguration parishioners scattered to various other churches when their church building was demolished. They say the deep-rooted ethnic heritage of their neighborhood likewise will be shattered if the parish is dissolved.

Mount Pleasant Historical Society President Richard Snyder said the parish is the "last of the Polish heritage in Mount Pleasant."

Its loss will be a blow to the Polish community, he said.

"That just wipes everything out. The school is gone, so is the church," said Snyder, who is not a member of the parish.

The parish school was closed in 1998 and razed in the fall of 2002.

Markers in the Polish Cemetery of the Transfiguration reflect the heritage of the parishioners, many of whose ancestors came to the region to find work in the coal mines. Names such as Kaczmarek, Sliwa and Niezgoda are among the inscriptions.

But Matusak said the end of Transfiguration parish won't mean the end of the neighborhood's ethnic heritage. Parishioners will have just as many opportunities to continue their Polish traditions in the other two borough churches as they did when they had their own building, he said.

"The past is important, but you can't live in it," Matusak said.

The Transfiguration parish remained even after the church building was torn down. But the idea of a parish without a church apparently didn't catch on with many congregants.

Borough Councilman Gene Rosky attended services at Transfiguration Church all his life. He recently met with Matusak to discuss the parishioners' concerns.

"We're assessed $4,200 a week. We have no building, no maintenance, no upkeep," Rosky said. "It's all about money. The Catholic Church is nothing but a rip-off."

Despite the loss of their church building, parishioners are expected to continue to give, Rosky said. "The people we talk to say 'no way,' and I don't blame them one bit."

Rosky and others are trying to convince another church to come to town. "We're looking for an independent Polish church. Independent from the diocese, but recognized by Rome."

Some believe they may have found what they're looking for in the Rev. Leonard Bealko, a Catholic priest who was dismissed by the Greensburg diocese in 1985. He's currently holding Masses in Latin in the chapel at St. Clair Cemetery. The chapel is not affiliated with the diocese.

Bealko was dismissed by the diocese while serving in Starford, Indiana County. He is not a priest in good standing with the Diocese of Greensburg, diocesan officials said.

Bealko could not be reached for comment.

Snyder said the borough has lost other ethnic parishes. "St. Bernadine's, the Italian church, merged with St. Joseph's, the Irish church," he said. "There was still a line: I'm Italian, they're Irish."

Eventually, there will come a healing, he said.

The ethnic neighborhoods of old have been diluted but are not gone completely. A certain ethnic quality still exists in Mt. Pleasant, Snyder said.

"I would hate to see it go," he said. "There's a lot of good in that."

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