Parishioners plan appeals to keep their churches open

The interior of Our Lady of Peace Church in Milmont Park, Delaware County. The parish is scheduled to be merged with Notre Dame de Lourdes in Swarthmore, where parishioners have been leading opposition to the decision.
The interior of Our Lady of Peace Church in Milmont Park, Delaware County. The parish is scheduled to be merged with Notre Dame de Lourdes in Swarthmore, where parishioners have been leading opposition to the decision. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 04, 2014

Sitting in a pew at Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Swarthmore on Saturday afternoon, Tom Donahue was shocked to hear that his parish would close in one month.

"First it's like anger and sadness, and then once that all settles in you start thinking, what can we do to save the church and prevent this from happening?" he said Monday.

After sharing hugs and tears, Donahue and others at the Delaware County parish turned their grief into action. On Sunday morning they began collecting signatures for a petition asking that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia keep Notre Dame de Lourdes open instead of merging it with Our Lady of Peace Church in Milmont Park.

Notre Dame de Lourdes is one of at least three parishes fighting to stay open, following news that the Archdiocese will close 16 parishes by July 1. That announcement came over the weekend, after a review of 46 parishes in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties.

Appeals must be submitted to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput within 10 days of an announcement that a parish will close, according to Church law. Decisions can later be appealed to church officials in Rome.

But no parish has succeeded in appealing to stay open since the archdiocese began reviewing and downsizing its facilities in 2010, said spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin.

Catholic schools have been more successful; Chaput approved 18 of 24 appeals to keep schools open in 2012.

Although they acknowledged Monday their efforts may not make a difference, some parishioners and pastors are preparing to fight.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Bensalem, Bucks County, has hired an attorney who is familiar with church law to appeal the decision that it will merge with St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Croydon.

Parishioners at St. Ann Church in Bristol Borough, Bucks County, will hold a meeting Thursday night to make a petition and plan their appeal.

"We're going to get to the root of it, how it happened," said Monica DiGuiseppe, who has attended St. Ann's for nearly 60 years.

She said she was "dumbfounded" to learn that her church will close and merge with St. Mark's Church, also in Bristol. Her relatives helped build St. Ann's in 1906, when it was founded by Italian immigrants who felt discriminated against at St. Mark.

In Swarthmore, the announcement that Notre Dame de Lourdes would close surprised parishioners. As part of the review process, local pastors and parishioners had submitted a recommendation that Our Lady of Peace Church close instead, and merge with Notre Dame de Lourdes.

On Friday afternoon, the Rev. Karl Zeuner expressed confidence that his church would remain open because it is a vibrant community that pays its bills on time.

Our Lady of Peace closed its school and sent its students to Notre Dame de Lourdes School four years ago, but the archdiocese took the opposite approach with the parishes.

"I keep saying the numbers don't add up," said Donahue, who is helping organize the petition. He said the group will collect signatures all day Tuesday, at Masses this weekend and through a separate online petition before filing an appeal.

At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, the Rev. Michael Lonergan told parishioners at weekend Masses that he had already started the appeal process.

"He just said that . . . we have the right to appeal and he's already had that in motion," parishioner Megan Rutter said.

Lonergan declined to comment Monday, but Rutter said parishioners think the decision to merge with St. Thomas Aquinas is not logical because St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a newer church with better accessibility for handicapped and elderly parishioners.

Rutter and others already participated in a conference call with the parish's attorney, who explained the appeal process.

Parishes are able to use their money to hire an attorney for the appeal. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton will be ready to appeal to Rome if necessary, she said.

"We're going to fight this," she said. "We're going to stay strong. We're going to stay positive."

While the appeal plays out, the Rev. Mike Davis, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, must prepare to unite St. Elizabeth Ann Seton with his parish.

Though his parish's building will remain open, he said, neither parish wins in a merger because there will be changes in the staff and community of the newly formed parish.

"I feel bad because it's a loss, and I do feel bad for that," he said. "It's going to be harder for the people of St. Thomas to appreciate that [things are changing] because it will be our building."

lmccrystal@phillynews.com610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal

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