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Parishioners lament loss of 2 churches

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 4:55 p.m.

The debate was brief, quiet and heartfelt.

In the minutes prior to Sunday Mass at St. Mary Church in Forbes Road, Maunee F. George and Sarah V. Damico gently jostled in the early morning sunlight over who would read Scriptures during the service. The former soon conceded.

"Sarah, you've been here much longer than me. You should do it," whispered George, 54, of Greensburg.

Damico -- a native of the tiny village and a lifetime St. Mary member -- responded with rolling tears.

"I'll do it, but I don't know if I'll be able to make it through," said Damico, 60, of Greensburg. "I buried my parents here, you know."

Damico's emotions reflected the general mood of the congregation yesterday at the 99-year-old church that, with its sister parish, 93-year-old St. Bede Church of Bovard, will close Thursday along with 12 other parishes as part of the most sweeping restructuring in the 75-year history of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg.

Mass for 10 of the other churches met for a final time Oct. 19, said diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt. Fayette County's St. James Parish in Maxwell and Holy Spirit Parish in Fayette City also held final Masses yesterday, Zufelt said.

Bishop Lawrence Brandt announced the planned church closings Oct. 6, citing aging and declining numbers of priests and parishioners.

Hundreds of people, from infants to the elderly, attended the last Masses yesterday at both St. Mary and St. Bede.

Packed and silent in the wooden pews of brick, chapel-style churches lined by stained-glass windows, listeners at both Masses heard the Rev. Richard Chirichiello implore them to go forward with the knowledge that God does not reside in the buildings as much as it does within themselves.

"Is it sad• Yes, it's very sad," said Chirichiello, 62, a resident of St. Vincent Benedictine Monastery in Unity who is uncertain of the next assignment he will receive from the diocese.

"The good news is that you bring God with you wherever you go. So what is there to be afraid of in these closings• Nothing. There are some bonds that don't break with the closing of a building."

That message provided scant solace yesterday to those like Celeste M. Flock, a third-generation St. Bede parishioner who grew up in a home directly across Bovard Road from the church.

"It's been a rough year, I've lost my mother-in-law, my sister, and now my church is leaving me," said Flock, 49, who took pictures with a digital camera throughout the Mass. "I know many more will miss it, but I have to look at it standing empty every day."

Chirichiello readily recognized the gravity associated with the closings of churches that for many members were the sites of baptisms, weddings and the funerals of loved ones.

"People have learned to value the true presence of God here and how to bring it to their lives," Chirichiello said. "In that way, these parishes have changed everything."

For Regina Chicka, 62, a Coal Hollow Road resident of Forbes Road, St. Mary represents not just a place of worship but the work of her family lineage. Chicka's late father, Joseph V. Brahosky, and brother, Joseph A. Brahosky, 53, also of Coal Hollow Road, spent countless hours renovating the church's brickwork.

"Everybody knows everybody here," Chicka said.

St. Bede usher Michael R. Saunders, one of many in the Saunders clan to attend the church, said parting with the building is like losing a family member.

" ... and a way of life," said Saunders, 54, of Greensburg.

Cathy Montgomery, 22, of Bovard, who is studying photography at Westmoreland County Community College, made sure to leave several printouts of digital photos she took of St. Bede's exterior grounds near the donation table for all to see.

During each service, Chirichiello thanked parishioners for their time spent building each parish over the years and offered prayers for their futures. He was met both times by loud applause. Both Masses ended with rousing renditions of "Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory (Battle Hymn of the Republic)".

All property and parishioner records associated with St. Mary will be transferred to St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church in Crabtree, while all property and parishioner records associated with St. Bede will be transferred to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral Parish in Greensburg, Zufelt said.

"Those are the designated successor parishes, and those parishes will have to make the determination as to what is done with the (St. Mary and St. Bede) properties," Zufelt said. "At this point, it's too early in the process to tell."

Many members of both churches plan to begin attending St. Bartholomew's or Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

"Members aren't required to go to those churches, but their records will be on file in case they want to get involved," Zufelt said.

But Damico, holding her 2-year-old grandson, Luke Dinkel of Greensburg, said attending a new church will never have that same old feeling.

"I'm still looking for tissue, but I know there's not going to be any left."

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