Scaffolding surrounds the bell towers of Saints Mary and Ann Catholic Church in Marianna.
By Janice Crompton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Two Catholic churches in Washington County are feeling the pinch of financial constraints and dwindling resources, and parishioners and nearby residents aren't happy about it.
Last week, a group of about three dozen members of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Monongahela marched to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to deliver a letter to Bishop David A. Zubik, in a plea to keep the 108-year-old church from closing.
"Our church is only open for funerals and weddings," said parishioner Angelo Ripepi, the 82-year-old chairman of the Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony's Church, a newly formed group. "We want to get the church back to the way it was."
Mr. Ripepi said he was baptized there in 1930 and he and his wife, Jean, raised three children who also received sacraments at the church, which drew 300 to 400 worshipers during its two Sunday Masses, the last of which was held a month ago.
Now, Mr. Ripepi and the 90 other members of his group are concerned the diocese will close the church as part of a money-saving merger with Transfiguration Catholic Church, about seven blocks away.
"We feel as though they are moving in that direction," said Mr. Ripepi, a retired teacher. "It wasn't a merger. It was a takeover."
In August, the two parishes merged to form the St. Damien of Molokai parish, and regular services are continuing only at the Transfiguration site.
Since the merger, the two churches also have been sharing a priest, the Rev. Bill Terza, and Mr. Ripepi doesn't see why that arrangement couldn't continue.
"We love our neighbors [at Transfiguration]," Mr. Ripepi said. "But we feel that we have a legitimate right to have both churches open and share one priest."
Rev. Terza could not be reached for comment, but Rev. Ronald Lengwin a spokesman for the diocese, said such mergers and potential closings are a reality in today's Catholic churches.
"There's no question in our area that fewer people are going to church," Rev. Lengwin said. "Catholic churches aren't just about buildings. They are about people coming together."
Rev. Lengwin said Mr. Ripepi's instincts were probably correct, and acknowledged that's it's likely that one of the churches will be closed due to flagging attendance and financial constraints, though he said no decision has been made.
In recent years, the diocese has closed St. Dominic in Donora and Bishop Zubik's home church, St. Stanislaus in Ambridge.
In May, the diocese announced an effort to reduce an inventory of nearly 1,000 buildings by assisting parishes in selling 14 properties, including the former St. Michael Church in Munhall, six schools, two social halls and a Sheraden convent.
Mr. Ripepi, who said the group hasn't yet received a response from Bishop Zubik, is most concerned about losing local traditions and about parishioners who haven't just moved to other parishes, but stopped attending Mass altogether.
In Marianna, 23 miles to the south, Mayor Jeremy Berardinelli has been fighting a plan to demolish part of two bell towers on the 100-year-old Saints Mary and Ann Catholic Church.
Mayor Berardinelli is not a parishioner, but said he is concerned that the small town, built largely by coal miners at the now-closed Marianna Mine, is losing its heritage and historic sites as they fall into disrepair.
"We're losing our identity," he said. "We have nothing left from our founding fathers. That was the last beautiful thing we had left."
The parish priest, the Rev. Paul Grunebach, said he is sensitive to the historic nature of the building, but was forced to act when an engineer's report indicated that the twin bell towers on the yellow brick church were a safety hazard and could collapse without warning.
Cost, too, was a factor, said Rev. Grunebach, who called the decision to tear down part of the towers a "no-brainer," because the demolition estimate was $85,000, while the cost to rebuild the towers was $100,000 more.
In 1992, Saints Mary and Ann Church merged with St. Michael the Archangel in Fredericktown, to create a new parish called St. Oliver Plunkett.
The combined revenue in both churches is about $150,000 a year, Rev. Grunebach said, making a rebuild on such a "bare bones budget" an impossible task, even with grants and donations. The Marianna church has about 250 members, of which about 100 attend Mass regularly.
Still, Rev. Grunebach said, he is having only the top 8 feet of brick archway removed from the towers and he is saving the bricks in case Mayor Berardinelli finds the funds needed for a restoration. The contractor dismantling the towers has agreed to rebuild them if the project can be funded, Rev. Grunebach said.
"The towers are still there," he said. "They still have beautiful stained glass windows in them. They are not going away.''
Mayor Berardinelli, who obtained 149 signatures on a petition to preserve the towers, said he will try to raise the needed funds.
"I'm going to try to go after everything I can to get these rebuilt," said Mr. Berardinelli, who hopes to also open a coal mining museum dedicated to the 150 miners who perished in a 1908 fire at the mine, which closed in 1988 after another fire. "I want to preserve what little we have left."
Rev. Grunebach said he is also salvaging the remaining bell from one of the towers and will have it placed on a concrete pad and dedicated to the late Andrew Sakel, a resident who worked to fix the bell until his death several years ago.