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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2011

Its building is demolished, but congregation goes on

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

KANSAS, Ohio -- A 5 1/2-year battle by members of the former St. James Catholic Church to save their closed parish came to an unceremonious end when the Toledo Catholic Diocese sent a wrecking ball to raze the historic church.

"It's pretty much a sense of closure," said former parishioner Steve Johnson. "To see an unused, empty building sitting there all that time was probably more disappointing. To me, we can move on."

The white wood-frame building that had stood in this rural Seneca County community for 121 years was demolished a week before Christmas while a small crowd of ex-parishioners watched.

St. James Church and the parish house next door were razed "at the request of the local community," as were two other Ohio churches in the diocese -- in North Creek and Cuba -- more than six months ago, said Sally Oberski, director of communications for the diocese.

Former members of St. James said they wanted to keep the building, which is about 40 miles southeast of Toledo, but the diocese told them it could not be used as a church.

"They would have given it to us if we used it for dances and social meetings, but when we said we wanted to use it for worship, they said no," Ginny Hull said.

Given those options, the ex-members said, they decided to have the diocese raze the church.

"We didn't want to see it slowly deteriorate," Mrs. Hull said.

"We're a community, and it's a building. It had a lot of memories, and that's sad to see that happen, but we're still together."

Fran Lucius, 61, whose great-grandparents helped found St. James in 1889, was given the church's bell and the bell tower by the diocese. Those artifacts are being stored in the Lucius barn, within sight of where the church had been, with plans for using them as a memorial to the closed parish. Ms. Lucius was among those who watched the demolition.

"I hated to see it come down," she said. "I looked at it like this: It's not just for me, but I'm going clear back to my great-grandparents. Look what they sacrificed to build the church and to keep it going during the Depression. All we asked was to give us a priest once a month to keep the parish going. Sooner or later something might have happened."

St. James was one of 17 churches ordered shut by Bishop Leonard Blair on July 1, 2005, a decision that church officials said was necessary because of a growing shortage of priests and shifting demographics in the 19-county diocese.

When St. James' parishioners were told their church was going to be closed, they began a round-the-clock prayer vigil in the building. Fifty people took turns praying 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in hopes that their prayers would be answered and the church would be spared.

They also hired a Canon lawyer, filing an appeal to the Vatican, seeking to have the bishop's decision overturned.

The Vatican eventually upheld Bishop Blair, saying he had followed proper procedures in closing St. James.

Their prayer vigil came to an abrupt halt after 10 months, when the diocese sent a maintenance worker to the church on March 6, 2006. The worker ordered an elderly woman out of the pews, then changed the locks on the building. The diocese said, "The decision to secure the building was made for insurance liability reasons."

Former members of St. James, which had about 200 parishioners and $78,000 in its diocesan account when it was closed, also pursued their case in civil court.

They sued the diocese un- successfully in Seneca County Common Pleas Court, the Ohio 3rd District Court of Appeals, and the Ohio Supreme Court.

All told, the tiny parish spent more than $100,000 in legal fees.

There are no regrets, they said.

"We did everything we could to keep the place. We're not sorry," said Mrs. Hull, who had organized the prayer vigil and broke down in tears when the diocese locked the ex-parishioners out.

The group is still forging ahead as a parish, albeit not in the Roman Catholic Church.

About 50 members formed a nonprofit group, Kansas St. James Parish of Ohio Inc., in 2006, and have been meeting every Sunday for prayer services in Kansas' United Methodist Church. For several years, a priest in the Polish National Catholic Church drove once a month from suburban Detroit to celebrate Mass with the Kansas faithful.

Lately, Kansas St. James Parish has been holding Mass at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday with a married priest, the Rev. Randal LaFond, as celebrant.

The group discovered Father LaFond via the Internet, Mrs. Hull said.

"He is wonderful," she said. "He's married. He knows what life is about. He speaks to us on our level. He doesn't feel like he's above us."

Father LaFond is a member of CITI Ministries Inc. -- the name is an acronym for Celibacy Is The Issue, Ms. Hull said. The Brunswick, Maine, group promotes the availability of married and other resigned Roman Catholic priests, who, they say, are still priests according to Canon law.

Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Hull said Kansas St. James Parish of Ohio is looking to buy a building or to purchase land on which to build a church.

"I love that we have been operating our church independently and have been carrying out our mission to our community," Mr. Johnson said. "This is a difficult economic time, and communities like Kansas need a church much more than they ever needed that particular building."

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



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