Parishioners of former St. Anthony's fight building's closing

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Parishioners from the former St. Anthony Parish in Monongahela say they will appeal Bishop David Zubik's decision to close their church building, which he announced last weekend.

They plan to hand-deliver their appeal to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh headquarters on Monday morning, initiating a process that could carry to the Vatican.

In 2011 the diocese had merged St. Anthony and Transfiguration parishes into one parish, named for St. Damien of Molokai.

St. Anthony was initially kept open only for special occasions, but weekly Masses later resumed there.

But Bishop Zubik said he decided to close the St. Anthony building permanently, effective the end of April, 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 because of its central location and better condition.

The expected appeal would not be to re-establish St. Anthony as a separate parish. Rather, it would be to preserve the church building as a sacred space consecrated to Catholic worship.

Under canon law, a bishop can essentially remove the consecration of a sanctuary for grave reasons. But those appealing the closing contend that Bishop Zubik has not met that burden of proof and that they can raise the funds to maintain the building.

Laura Magone, a member of the Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's, said that while parishioners do not want a legal battle, the church "is part of their way of life" and is steeped in the history of its Italian and Slovak immigrant founders.

"The bishop does not understand the unnecessary pain he brings to people's lives," she said in a statement.

The Very Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin, vicar general for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said parishioners have the right to appeal but that the closing was the best solution "after years of conflict and indecision."

He said Bishop Zubik made his decision only after reading through all of more than 400 written comments from parishioners. Bishop Zubik had said he was considering closing the parish entirely because of the level of dissension within it. "We had hoped through this all people would be able to find unity," he said.

Brody Hale, who directs the Catholic Church Preservation Society in Boston and has advised the parishioners in their appeal, said the first avenue of appeal under church law is to Bishop Zubik himself, who would be expected to uphold his own decision.

The next avenues, he said, would be to the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy and finally to its top court. He said some dioceses around the country have avoided legal battles by preserving church buildings "at no expense to the diocese, being maintained by those who wish for them to be maintained as Catholic sacred spaces."

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416 or Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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