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Published: Monday, 2/23/2009

Ex-parishioners continuing fight to own former church

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Former parishioners of the closed St. James Catholic Church in Kansas, Ohio, are taking their fight to the Ohio Supreme Court. From left are Ed Row, Virginia Hull, Sarah Kleinfelter, Helen Durst, Margie Steinmetz, and Sue Schwab, shown in 2007. Former parishioners of the closed St. James Catholic Church in Kansas, Ohio, are taking their fight to the Ohio Supreme Court. From left are Ed Row, Virginia Hull, Sarah Kleinfelter, Helen Durst, Margie Steinmetz, and Sue Schwab, shown in 2007.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

A group of former parishioners of a rural Catholic church closed by Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair in 2005 is continuing its legal efforts to gain ownership of the ex-church and property.

We felt strongly that there were some issues raised that hadn t been addressed properly, and we felt they deserved more dialogue, said Steve Johnson, a former member of the closed St. James Catholic Church in Kansas, Ohio.

After the Ohio 3rd District Court of Appeals in December upheld the Toledo Catholic Diocese s right to close the parish, ex-members opted to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The suit was filed in late January by the Kansas St. James Parish of Ohio, Inc., a nonprofit corporation formed by ex-parishioners, and two individuals who had been members of the parish, James and Virginia Hull.

Thomas Pletz, a lawyer for the Toledo Catholic Diocese, said on Friday that a response to the appeal will be filed on or before next Monday, and that he had no further comment.

Mrs. Hull and Mr. Johnson said ex-parishioners voted to continue their legal battle after an outside source, whom they declined to identify, offered to help pay the group s legal expenses. The parishioners have said they spent about $100,000 on legal costs. The parishioners all said we ve got one more step and we d better go all the way, and not wonder what would have happened, Mrs. Hull said. We feel there were points that the appeals court really judged wrong.

The ex-parishioners contend that the property s deed names Bishop Blair as legal trustee of St. James Church and the bishop failed to act in their best interest when he closed the parish.

The diocese argued in the Ohio 3rd District Court of Appeals that closing St. James was an internal church matter and not the jurisdiction of a governmental court, citing constitutional separation of church and state.

The diocese also said the nonprofit corporation formed by St. James ex-parishioners did not legally represent the former congregation.

In the ex-parishioners appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, they argue that Ohio law has determined that the trust beneficiary is the unincorporated association of worshippers and supporters of that local church.

They asserted that trustees should not have the power to unilaterally change who the beneficiaries are without express authorization to do so. The case affects the rights of countless unincorporated associations who are trust beneficiaries throughout Ohio, the suit said.

St. James Catholic Parish was established in 1889, 21 years before the Toledo diocese was established. The parish was closed July 1, 2005, during a major restructuring of the 19-county Toledo diocese.

The parishioners first appeal to remain open was directed heavenward, a continuous prayer vigil inside their wood-frame church beginning May 1, 2005 two months before the scheduled closing.

The vigil went on for more than 10 months until a diocese worker ousted a women who had been praying and changed the locks to the building on March 6, 2006.

After the prayer vigil s abrupt end, ex-members took their case to civil court, filing a lawsuit in Seneca County Common Pleas Court in June, 2006.

The suit said that although Bishop Blair had the right to close a parish, he did not have legal ownership of the property. The relief sought was the use and enjoyment of the property, not as a church of the Roman Catholic faith but as a place of personal worship and community gathering, the suit said.

The common pleas court ruled in the diocese s favor in March, 2008, as did the appeals court last December.

Mrs. Hull said many former members of St. James Church continue to meet every Sunday for prayer at a United Methodist church in Kansas, which is 40 miles southeast of Toledo.

The ex-parishioners also will perform a Lenten musical drama, His Last Days, for the 21st year in a row, with five presentations scheduled at churches across the region starting March 15.

Contact David Yonke at:dyonke@theblade.comor 419-724-6154.



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