Opponents of Monongahela church closure looking for Vatican's help

The last three parishioners taking part in an overnight sit-in emerged Sunday morning from St. Anthony Church in Monongahela, but that doesn't mean they have ended their protest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh's plan to close the 100-year-old Roman Catholic church.

Their next step will be to take their fight to Rome.

"We've made the appeal, and Bishop [David] Zubik has not responded," said Joe Ravasio, 52, who was among 30 parishioners who spent the night in the church. "So the next step in the process is to the Vatican in Rome, which we're prepared to do.

"The important message is that Catholic churches that are viable, that are committed in their communities, should not be closed. The closing of those churches has to stop."

The group plans to follow Catholic procedures to contest the closing and is looking into hiring a canon lawyer who will argue its case before the Vatican.

Saturday's afternoon Mass marked the end of St. Anthony Church on Park Avenue. In 2011, the diocese merged St. Anthony and Transfiguration 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.

St. Anthony parishioners, however, are resisting.

The sit-in ended not because the last three parishioners were giving up. They left because they were hungry and thirsty.

"The diocese has made conditions deplorable," said Laura Magone, 53, who said officials had turned off the lights and refused to let them open church windows or to leave and bring back food and water.

"We had 30 people that stayed [overnight]," said Mr. Ravasio, who remained until 8:30 a.m. "But can you imagine priests not giving their own flock, their own parishioners, not allowing them to have bottled water, not allowing them to have a sandwich? If Jesus Christ was there, would he have let people have water, let people have food?"

But the Rev. Bill Terza, pastor of St. Damien, said the church's ritual for closing a church is to have all attendees leave the church after the Mass. The church is then closed.

He said electricity in the church was not turned off and that the protesters could obtain water from the church's restrooms.

Ms. Magone described the situation differently. She said five security guards were inside the church with the parishioners and refused to let them open the windows, which would have allowed supporters to pass in food and water. The protesters were told that if they left the church they would not be allowed back in.

"I was there the whole night," Mr. Ravasio said. "We said prayers all night."

Mr. Ravasio argued there is no reason to close a church that is rooted so deeply in the community and still has more than 300 parishioners.

"St. Anthony was founded by mostly the Italian immigrants," he said, "and Transfiguration was mostly the Polish and Germans. But everybody has gotten along, and that was fine all these years. And you get to 2014 and [Bishop Zubik] decides to close a church that is very viable and absolutely beautiful.

"Both parishes were very viable, strong, committed parishes in the Monongahela community. When he chose to merge us, he pitted neighbor against neighbor."

The Very Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin, the diocese's vicar general, 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.

But to the parishioners, the church is more than a building.

"It has broken our hearts that our bishop has labeled it a building," Mr. Ravasio said. "This church is an honorable place to worship and serve Jesus Christ. We think it's shameful for a bishop to tell us to get over that church because it's only a building."

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456. Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941. Peter Smith contributed.

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