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Published: Wednesday, 6/15/2005

Controversial renovation to church gets under way

GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio - Renovation work has begun on a Catholic church in Grand Rapids, five years after the project was shelved because of bitter feuding, vandalism, and death threats.

Two members of St. Patrick's Providence Parish who led opposition to the project in 2000 held a news conference yesterday outside the Catholic Center urging Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair to intervene and halt renovations that began Sunday at the 160-year-old church.

Lou Leasor and Rick Westhoven said that while some renovation is needed for pews, flooring, and other areas, they vehemently oppose plans to move the altar to the center of the worship space and move the tabernacle from the center to one side of the sanctuary.

The Rev. Anthony Gallagher, in his 10th year as pastor of the rural church, said he and the parish council conducted surveys, "tried to be sensitive" to opponents' concerns, and made compromises in the plans.

Mr. Westhoven and Mr. Leasor rejected the compromises as trivial, claimed the parish council is hand-picked by Father Gallagher, and said if Bishop Blair does not intervene, they will organize a protest march.

Bishop Blair, who was in Chicago yesterday to prepare for a national bishops conference, has reviewed the renovation plans, approved them, and granted approval for the project to begin, the Rev. Michael Billian, episcopal vicar of the diocese, said yesterday.

"Everything they're doing in the renovation is fully permissible," Father Billian said. "It follows the guidelines, from both the Vatican and the national bishops conference, for renovation of churches."

In 2000, renovation plans led to heated disputes because moving the altar was seen by opponents as a rejection of the church's heritage and a move to contemporary liturgy that was allowable but not required by the Second Vatican Council.

Two renovation opponents received death threats, several cars were vandalized, and opponents staged a protest outside the bishop's residence.

Father Gallagher said he had no dollar figure for the work, but Mr. Westhoven estimated the cost at $200,000 to $300,000.

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