ROME — Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik on Monday defended his decision to close the St. Anthony's Church building in Monongahela and said those opposing the closure are a small minority who have misrepresented what has happened and behaved scandalously.
Bishop Zubik, interviewed in Rome where he is traveling on a pilgrimage, said protesters had no right to attempt a sit-in over the weekend after the final Mass at the century-old building, which already has been merged with a neighboring parish and is now slated to be closed.
"Nobody's denying their right to appeal" to the Vatican, Bishop Zubik said. "The important thing is, we have to deal with this in charity and love. Screaming at the priest and making accusations that are patently false, that's not the way. It's an embarrassment and a scandal."
About 30 protesters staged an all-night prayer vigil at the building after the last Mass on Saturday, but by Sunday the last protesters had left.
One of the last three people to leave the church Sunday, Laura Magone, 53, said the group of "high-spirited people" simply intended to hold a prayer vigil, and they're saddened they have been labeled protesters who staged a sit-in.
"In terms of some of the things that have happened in the Catholic Church, what we have done is not a scandal," she said.
In 2011, the diocese merged St. Anthony and Transfiguration Church in Monongahela into one parish, named for St. Damien of Molokai.
Bishop Zubik said he decided to close the St. Anthony building because the newly merged parish did not have the funds to maintain both buildings, and the councils of the new parish were unable to reach a consensus on a recommendation for the buildings. He said he chose Transfiguration, about five blocks away, because of its central location and better condition.
A group seeking to keep the building open recently filed an appeal to Bishop Zubik. He said he has sent the group his response, and while he would not divulge it publicly until members had a chance to read it, he defended the steps he took leading up to the closure. Assuming Bishop Zubik upholds his own decision, protesters can appeal to the Vatican under church law.
Bishop Zubik said parishioners who attended the final Mass at St. Anthony on Saturday were told they could stay afterward but could not re-enter once they left. Security personnel limited what supplies could be brought in. The church said electricity, water service and bathrooms were available, although Ms. Magone said they were locked out of the room with controls for light and heat.
She said while prayer vigils in closing churches is common, the treatment was not.
"Every step along the way, the diocese has called the shots, and we don't have many options left, and we thought we could pray in a church," Ms. Magone said.
Bishop Zubik reiterated what he told parishioners in a lengthy letter earlier this year. He said that after the merger, he instructed the parish council to prepare by August 2013 a recommendation on what to do with the buildings. In the meantime, he said, after the parish ended weekly Masses at the St. Anthony site, he reinstated them at protesters' request.
But by August 2013, he said, the council reported it was too divided to make any recommendation and left it up to him.
He went to the parish, he said, and told them "the issue is no longer should we have two buildings" but any parish at all in Monongahela "because, to be honest, your behavior is so scandalous, it defies the nature of a parish."
He said he asked for written comments on whether to preserve the parish, and if so, how they would support it. He said he received more than 400 letters. Everyone wanted a parish to remain, and he said the vast majority said it didn't matter which building and lamented divisions within the parish and even its families.
"In that difficult and charged environment, I went there myself," he said. "I read every letter myself."
Ms. Magone disputed the account, contending that a significant number supported keeping St. Anthony.
"If you have a parish that can take care of itself and pays the bills and lives the Gospel, I do not understand what the problem is," she said.
"We understand the church is not a democracy, but there has been no due process," she said. "The people who have paid for the church have lost their church."
But Bishop Zubik said those are issues that can be raised in appeal, not by occupying the building.
Bishop Zubik has been in Rome with a group of about 90 from the Diocese of Pittsburgh for a weeklong pilgrimage anchored around Sunday's canonization of the late popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. Lexi Belculfine contributed.