‘Roaming Catholics' still struggle with 2005 parish closings

Toledo Diocese's moves affected 5,000

  • catholic-diocese-numbers

  • Rick Napierala, left, and Tom Robakowski, outside the former St. Anthony Catholic Church, say they have floated around since the parish's closure.
    Rick Napierala, left, and Tom Robakowski, outside the former St. Anthony Catholic Church, say they have floated around since the parish's closure.
    In July, 2005, the Toledo Catholic Diocese closed 17 parishes and merged 16 others because of a growing priest shortage and changing church demographics. The reorganization was the biggest since the diocese's founding in 1911, and many of the 5,000 parishioners affected said church officials told them it was "time to move on."

    More than 5 1/2 years later, many are still moving.

    "A lot of people haven't gone back. I haven't really gone back anywhere. I just kind of float around," said Rick Napierala, 57, who had been active in St. Anthony Catholic Church on Nebraska Avenue.

    "It was my mom's parish, and my grandparents lived two blocks away," he said. "It was such a gorgeous church. It is just heartbreaking to think that it's sitting there vacant."

    Tom Robakowski, 70, of Sylvania said he felt like part of a community at St. Anthony. His late father, Anthony, was so involved with the church that folks called him "Mr. St. Anthony."

    Since the parish was shuttered, Mr. Robakowski has become a "Roaming Catholic."

    "I go to St. Joe's [in Sylvania] half the time, the other half the time I go to St. Hyacinth. It's just totally different now," he said.

    A onetime Polish ethnic parish, St. Anthony's dwindled to a few hundred members before it closed. St. Joseph's in Sylvania, by contrast, is the largest parish in the 19-county diocese, with more than 10,000 members.

    "You go to St. Joe's and you feel like you're an ant on a beach," Mr. Robakowski said. "Megachurches just don't make it."

    Bishop Leonard Blair and other church officials said the 2005 changes were unavoidable because there were not enough priests to serve all the parishes. Many of the affected churches were founded in the 1800s, when neighborhoods and transportation were so different from today.

    Jason Shanks, who in October became head of the diocesan department in charge of evangelization and parish life, said he understands the anguish of a church closing.

    Jason Shanks, a Toledo diocese official, says he understands the pain of a parish closing.
    Jason Shanks, a Toledo diocese official, says he understands the pain of a parish closing.
    "I come from a parish in Columbus where another parish closed and people from the closed parish became members of my parish. So I know their pain. I'm sensitive to that. Change is not easy," he said.

    Mr. Shanks, who has master's degrees in theology and nonprofit management, said diocesan officials have learned from the 2005 reorganization, the scope of which was unprecedented in the diocese's 100-year history.

    More changes
    In January, Bishop Blair announced another round of parish changes that will affect 33 churches over the next three years. In almost all cases, the changes will involve grouping parishes, with one priest serving two or more communities.

    As in 2005, Bishop Blair said the decisions were based on the number of priests available.

    For some people in the pews, the closing of their parish in 2005 motivated them to look beyond the diocese for solutions.

    Chris Cremean found his answer in the Polish National Catholic Church. The denomination, founded in Scranton, Pa., in the early 1900s, is similar to Roman Catholicism. Priests, who can be married, celebrate the liturgy in English.

    A member of St. Jude's Parish in Toledo before the diocese closed it, Mr. Cremean and about 14 other Catholics whose parishes were shuttered banded together to start Resurrection Polish National Catholic Church. The parish this month celebrated its five-year anniversary; three years ago it moved into a former church it bought in Temperance.

    "There were two things as ‘Roaming Catholics' that we were looking for: something that is traditionally Catholic, and something that is ours — that we belong to, not necessarily in terms of ownership," Mr. Cremean said.

    Alternative moves
    In the Seneca County hamlet of Kansas, Ohio, members of the former St. James Catholic Church worked hard to prevent their parish from closing. They held a 24/7 prayer vigil in the wood-frame church and spent more than $100,000 in legal fees seeking to have Bishop Blair's decision overturned in Catholic and then in civil courts.

    Their efforts failed, but a large contingent has continued to meet every week in the Kansas United Methodist Church, either for prayer services or Mass, depending on whether a priest was available.

    A few months ago, they found their pastor, the Rev. Randall LaFond, through CITI Ministries, a referral service for ordained married Roman Catholic priests. CITI, which stands for Celibacy Is The Issue, asserts that its priests are fully valid Roman Catholic clergy.

    "He is intimately woven into the cloth of the parish at this point. He is intimately familiar with our history," said Steve Johnson,parish council president. "He pastors us, he understands our issues, and he wants to help us deal with that. That's been healthy to us to have somebody there on a weekly basis who is a spiritual leader."

    Mr. Johnson said he doesn't like to dwell on St. James' closing. He prefers to look ahead, saying the group is considering buying a church or building a new one.

    "It's very easy for those old wounds to open up and to start rehashing all of those old arguments. The feelings come back," he said.

    Old wounds
    Such painful feelings still haunt George Van Doren after 5½ years.

    Father John Cramer and Chris Cremean prepare for Mass at Resurrection Polish National Catholic Church, which was formed by Catholics whose parishes were closed.
    Father John Cramer and Chris Cremean prepare for Mass at Resurrection Polish National Catholic Church, which was formed by Catholics whose parishes were closed.
    When his parish, Holy Rosary in East Toledo, was shuttered in 2005, Mr. Van Doren led an effort to overturn the decision by working within the Roman Catholic legal system. Holy Rosary's ex-members hired a canon lawyer and took their appeal to Rome, where the Vatican ultimately upheld Bishop Blair.

    The diaspora of his church family has been painful for Mr. Van Doren, a 63-year-old fire investigator.

    "The thing that I miss is the fellowship of our parish community," he said. "It's not the same. The fellowship is something that you build up over the years, and all of a sudden it's gone. It still has an adverse effect on me. I'm still pretty despondent over it."

    He said he has yet to find a church that he considers his home. "I'm sad to report that more often than not I don't [go to church]. I'm still disillusioned with the leadership of the Catholic Church around here and I know that's no excuse. I feel terrible being a Catholic who doesn't go to Mass. I'm an adult male and I can go to Mass if I want to, but I've just been disheartened by the whole thing and I haven't gotten over it."

    Mr. Van Doren, who was raised a Southern Baptist and converted to Catholicism, remains convinced that the Toledo diocese violated canon law in the way it closed Holy Rosary and that the Vatican turned a deaf ear to the parishioners' argument.

    "I'm not angry at God or anything over this. It wasn't any of his doing," he said. "It was the leadership of the local church's doing, and then the leadership of the world church in Rome not requiring the local church to adhere to canon law."

    Mr. Robakowski, of the former St. Anthony's, said the parish paid $220,000 for a new roof on the building a year or so before it was closed. After it was shuttered, he said, he offered to buy the building from the diocese for $1 and maintain it himself as a museum. He felt the people who put so much into the church deserve at least that much.

    "My father, he gave $25,000-plus for the roof. He passed away in August [2005] at age 92, right after it closed. I called the diocese and asked if we could have the funeral there and they said no," Mr. Robakowski said.

    He set up a Web site, stanthonytoledo.com, to keep the memory of St. Anthony's alive, and Mr. Robakowski and Mr. Napierala are officers in the St. Anthony Society, a group whose mission is to preserve the memory of the former church.

    The society at first held monthly meetings, but now they just get together for special occasions.

    "We had a Christmas party and we must have had 100 people there," Mr. Robakowski said. "It was the biggest turnout ever. There is still a lot of interest in this church."

    Moving on
    Many people whose parishes closed have managed to move on and settle into new churches.

    Ginny Hull, who led the effort to save St. James in Kansas, said about a quarter of the 225 parishioners have moved to nearby churches.

    "There are some that have settled into St. Andrew's [in Bascom, Ohio], and there are some that have settled at St. Wendelin in Fostoria and St. Mary's in Millersville," she said.

    Curtis and Martha Cotton of Toledo, who were members of St. Jude Parish, moved to St. Martin de Porres Church in the central city.

    Mr. Cotton, a retired Rogers High School principal, sings in the church choir, and Mrs. Cotton started a prayer shawl ministry.

    "When they closed St. Jude and we finally found a church and started attending St. Martin de Porres, I noticed some things that were happening there that weren't happening at our church. They do quite a bit," Mr. Cotton said. "It may have been a blessing in disguise for the church to close because I found something that was more active, more true to our liking. I am enjoying every bit of it."

    His wife has the same enthusiasm for her new parish.

    "At first I was really hurting. I even talked to the bishop about it," she said. "Once I got over to St. Martin de Porres and saw all the things they're doing and how the people are so multicultural there, I just love it so much."

    Staffing problems
    Mr. Shanks, the diocese's director of evangelization and parish life, said staffing problems that forced the parish changes are not unique to Toledo, nor are they unique to the church.

    With the baby-boomer generation reaching retirement age, many nonprofit agencies are losing their executives and are seeking to fill key positions.

    Mr. Shanks said his predecessors, who began analyzing parish and priest data in 2001, calculated the number of priests through the year 2013, and so far their predictions have been spot on.

    He eventually plans to start a new study of how many priests will be available to the diocese from 2014 to 2020.

    "It's not an exact science, but there is some evidence that we will level out and from 2013 on the numbers will be fine," Mr. Shanks said. "My prayer is that it will level off and the numbers will improve and grow."

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