By TRACI L. WEISENBACH
For the Advertiser
SEBEWAING — “A tremendous injustice.”
Attendees of the Save Our Rural Catholic Church (SORCC) rally at Holy Family Catholic Church in Sebewaing Thursday night used words such as these to describe the “Future Full of Hope: Planning Tomorrow’s Parishes” initiative by the Diocese of Saginaw to merge Catholic parishes across the 11-county Diocese. Organizers estimate that approximately 400 to 500 people from about 33 churches – including Catholic churches and other denominations – attended the peaceful demonstration that included music and a variety of speakers.
Eisengruber said he thought the rally went well and he’s heard positive comments from attendees since the rally. The primary goal of the rally was to send a message to the Rev. Joseph R. Cistone, Bishop of Saginaw, who was inside the Holy Family Catholic Church leading a prayer service.
The message: area Catholics and others are disappointed by the directive to divide parishes into parish (main), additional use and occasional use churches, how the decisions were made as to which parishes would be in which category, and how the Bishop and Diocese are handling people’s concerns. They believe the Bishop is not listening to them and their ideas – the very ideas the Bishop asked the parishes to submit last year.
Bishop Cistone, in an exclusive interview with the Huron Daily Tribune/Tuscola County Advertiser on Friday, said he and the Diocese are listening, even though he is not able to follow through with the requests and ideas being shared by some of the parishes. See accompanying story for more comments from Bishop Cistone.
Planning for the SORCC rally began about a couple of weeks ago when Holy Family Catholic Church received word that the Bishop was coming to the parish for a prayer service. Mike Eisengruber, one of the primary organizers of the rally, worked with a variety of committees to get the rally off the ground. Via a Facebook page, flyers and media reports, SORCC urged people to attend the rally to have their voices heard.
“It could very well be the best two hours you have spent to help save the churches in the diocese,” one of the Facebook posts stated.
Under the “Planning Tomorrow’s Parishes” directive, announced in January 2013, Holy Family was selected as an additional use church. This change will take effect in July 2014. According to the directive, as posted on the Diocese of Saginaw website, Sunday Mass will be celebrated each weekend in each of the additional use churches. Daily Mass, weddings, funerals, holy days and other parish liturgies also may be celebrated in these churches, at the discretion of the pastor or pastoral administrator. Parishes
will be required to review the need and viability of these additional churches every two years. Holy Family is part of Cohort No. 7, which includes other parishes such as St. Agatha in Gagetown, which will become an occasional use church. For these churches, regularly scheduled Masses will no longer be celebrated as of a determined date and pastoral administrators, in consultation with their parish pastoral and finance councils, will need to consider what purpose, if any, these buildings may serve and whether they will be retained for parish use. In the meantime, permission may be granted for such events as weddings or funerals of former parishioners to take place in these churches.
As of July 2014, St. Pancratius, Cass City will become a parish, or main, church, where regularly scheduled Masses and sacraments will take place for all members of the parish community.
Eisengruber said people who attend additional use and occasional use churches see the Diocese’s directive as a way to eventually close these churches altogether, leaving only the parish, or main, churches open. He said many parishioners view the decisions made by the Diocese as being centered around “money and power,” not about what is best for the local churches. Many parishioners, he said, likely will not travel to St. Pancratius for Mass and other activities because it is too far, especially in the winter.
Many people at the rally held signs, some of them with messages such as “Our Church, Our Community, Our Family.” Others announced which churches were represented. Several people spoke, and in between the speeches, a guitar group from the Moravian Church in Unionville performed.
Eisengruber and others at the rally said in rural areas, losing churches means losing an important segment of the community. They said they don’t believe the Bishop and the Diocese understand this.
Retired priest Joseph Schabel, who served for 57 years, was one of the speakers during the rally and received a standing ovation afterward.
“You’re speaking one language and the Bishop is speaking another language, but your language is holier than his,” Schabel said. “We need to respect him, even though he’s wrong. … He is not listening to the people who are holy.”
He said he wrote the Bishop three letters. While he received a response, it wasn’t much of one, he said.
In his letters, Schabel offered some ideas to help with the priest shortage. He said perhaps another person, such as an experienced layperson, could celebrate the Mass when a priest is not available. Those at the rally enthusiastically applauded this idea.
One of the parishes Schabel served was St. Francis Borgia in Pigeon, which also has been designated as an additional use church. St. Francis member Lisa DiCamillo, who attended the rally, said the church has hired an attorney to appeal the directive. She said she and other St. Francis parishioners believe the appeals process was not spelled out very well by the Diocese.
“That was problematic to us,” she said. “We’re not trying to be rebellious. We’re just trying to stand for our church. … More thought needed to be put into this (directive).”
So far, Bishop Cistone has denied the appeal, so the next step is the Vatican, DiCamillo said.
Ginger Marx, of St. Matthew in Zilwaukee, was another speaker at the rally. St. Matthew was the first church in the Diocese of Saginaw to file an appeal regarding the directive that named St. Matthew as an occasional use church, which took effect this summer, she said. Churches only had 10 days to file an appeal after the directive was announced in January, which many churches did not know, Marx said, because the appeal process was not explained very well, if at all, to the parishes. The Bishop denied the appeal, and the appeal went to the Vatican. According to a July 19 press release from the Diocese, the Vatican (via the Congregation for the Clergy) has denied the appeal.
After the last Mass took place at St. Matthew, Marx watched as a lock was placed on the church door – the very church where she and several generations of her family have attended. She said she always thought, “This is my church,” but now, she realizes something different.
“If you think it’s your church, it’s not. It (belongs to) the Diocese,” she said.
John Horny, former Huron County Commissioner, spoke during the rally and said with making some churches additional and occasional use, it will further deter young families from joining local churches.
“More young people will be leaving the church, and we need to get our young people involved in what our church could be,” he said.
Horny said churches like Holy Family are bringing in enough money and offering many services to the local communities and they should be able to remain open as they are today.
Some at the rally were from other denominations, but wanted to attend to support the local Catholic parishes.
“I’m a Lutheran, but we’re all family,” said Sebewaing resident Greg Timmins. “We protect our churches. We are the flock.”
Timmins said he wanted the Bishop to come out and speak to the people.
“If he’s not out here, why are we here?” he said. “He has a following. Why doesn’t he have the cahones to talk to us?”
During the rally, footage for a documentary video was being collected, Eisengruber said. This video will be sent to the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, located in Washington, D.C.
As part of this video, approximately 30 people volunteered to speak about their concerns about the mergers.
After the rally concluded, some people – including Holy Family members – entered the church to see how many people were at the prayer service. They said they were intercepted by a guard, which they were quite concerned about. They didn’t see the need for a guard to question them or try to stop them from going into the service. As she exited the church, one woman said she told the guard, “I’m a Catholic and I have every right to be here.”
According to those who were in the church during the prayer service, about 30 to 40 people attended, including about 16 Holy Family parishioners.
Even after the rally concluded, several small groups of people stayed to talk with one another. Betty McGee, a member of Holy Family, was one of those people.
“Since the Bishop was here, we thought we could get (his) attention, but he’s been avoiding contact with us,” McGee said. “We need to be heard. Our Catholic church is our community.”