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Published: 2/12/2005

Catholics rally to halt church closings

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Ever since Bishop Leonard Blair's announcement last fall that he might close 17 churches and merge 16 others into six new parishes, thousands of Catholics in the Toledo diocese have agonized over the possibility of their church being shuttered.

Tomorrow, members and supporters of the targeted churches plan to hold a rally outside Rosary Cathedral in hopes of convincing the bishop to spare their parishes.

"If we do nothing, he's going to close our church," said David Mohre, of St. Joseph's Church in Blakeslee, Ohio. "It's a gimme. It's going down, nothing is going to change his mind. This is the only thing we can do to keep it open."

Members of at least nine targeted churches have told Mr. Mohre that they would attend the rally, with some chartering buses to carry parishioners to the cathedral.

The Rev. Stephen Stanbery, pastor of three churches in Henry County, said he canceled tomorrow morning's Mass at St. Paul's in Hamler, one of the churches that might be closed, because parishioners will be at the Toledo protest.

"Everybody is going to the rally, the entire Hamler congregation is going," Father Stanbery said, adding that he expects all 350 members of St. Paul's to participate.

Sally Oberski, director of communications for the Toledo diocese, said yesterday that "we know these people want to have their voices heard, and we certainly hear them and their concerns."

She said Bishop Blair, who was traveling and unavailable for comment, has been visiting the parishes and listening to comments since shortly after the recommendations were announced in September.

The recommendations were made by a six-person panel appointed by the late Bishop James Hoffman, and the committee spent two years studying demographics in the diocese's 157 parishes. Officials said the changes are needed because of shifts in population patterns among parishes, many of which were established in the 19th century, and because of the sharp drop in the number of priests.

Bishop Blair said this week that he will make his decision in "early March," a slight change from his original target date of March 1. The closings and mergers would take effect July 1.

Rick Schwiebert, a member of St. Paul's, Hamler, called the proposed closing "another attack on efforts to preserve a small-town heritage."

"There are so many sad times right now for the St. Paul's family," he said. "It feels like a loved one who is dying."

A group of Catholics hoping to persuade the bishop to reject the panel's recommendations recently formed "the STANDUP Committee," an acronym for "Start Taking a New Direction to Unifying Parishes."

Its stated purpose is "to dispute the proposed closings and offer recommendations in response. The STANDUP Committee strongly objects to the closing of any parish within the Toledo diocese."

Mr. Mohre, 43, a lifelong member of St. Joseph's in Blakeslee, a small town in Williams County near the Indiana line, said it's been difficult for rank-and-file Catholics to spread the word about the rally throughout the 19-county diocese. He claimed that some church officials refused to cooperate and would not print announcements in their bulletins.

At tomorrow's protest, participants plan to sing songs, pray, and hold up signs with sayings such as "Save Our Parish" and "We Support St. Joseph's Church," Mr. Mohre said.

Afterward, the protesters will attend Mass in Rosary Cathedral and drop letters into the offering plate appealing to Bishop Blair to spare their churches.

"It is absolutely going to be a peaceful rally," Mr. Mohre said. "We have no intentions of getting mean or nasty or anything. I guess our motto is, 'What would Jesus do?' Even if someone comes and throws tomatoes in our face, we are not going to go beyond a peaceful rally."

The rally is a last-ditch effort by Catholics anxiously awaiting the bishop's decision. Last month, diocesan deacons held a prayer meeting to support Bishop Blair as he ponders the proposals.

Some parishioners said they were frustrated by what they considered a lack of communication when the bishop met with them.

"I went to three meetings, and we feel like our comments fell on deaf ears," Mr. Mohre said.

Father Stanbery questioned Bishop Blair's assertion that it's too much work for a priest to oversee three parishes. The pastor of St. Mary's in Holgate, Sacred Heart in New Bavaria, and the targeted St. Paul's in Hamler, Father Stanbery said: "It's no problem handling these three parishes," adding that the bishop never consulted him.

Tomorrow's rally is set for 10 a.m. outside Rosary Cathedral, 2535 Collingwood Blvd.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.



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