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NY Region
Churches Resisting Mergers Appeal to Higher Powers
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 23:09:23 EST
Worshipers at the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which is resisting a merger sought by the Archdiocese of New York.
Worshipers at the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which is resisting a merger sought by the Archdiocese of New York. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

For dozens of Roman Catholic parishes in the New York area, this Thursday will mark a last Christmas celebration.

The reorganization of 368 Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of New York is entering a new phase as archdiocese leaders begin implementing more than 50 mergers announced in early November and slated to take effect next August.

But some churches aren’t going down without a fight.

At least 18 parishes are now seeking recourse with the Vatican to overturn or limit the scope of the imminent merger, according to Sister Kate Kuenstler, a canon lawyer advising the churches.

Among the parishes at various stages of the appeals process are the Church of the Nativity in the East Village, and the Church of Our Lady of Peace and the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, both on the Upper East Side. The Church of St. Elizabeth is the only one in New York offering regular services for deaf and hearing-impaired Catholics.

“We will not allow this building to be deconsecrated,” said Robert Corti, 65, a parishioner of Our Lady of Peace. “We will pursue every level of appeal with the Vatican….We’re not ruling anything out.”

An appeals process can take years, according to canon lawyers and church advocates around the U.S. The process, they say, is a complicated, highly technical one, following a strict timeline and involving several benchmarks set by canon law, the regulations set by the Catholic Church.

Some experts say merging parishes is a technical loophole that, in recent years, has become a popular way to circumnavigate canon law. The process gives cardinals and bishops latitude to reorganize parishes and combine their finance councils.

“[The word] ‘merger’ is used ambiguously,” said Peter Borre, a Boston-based church consultant who has worked on a number of appeals involving parish closings—including several from Cleveland that the Vatican ultimately reversed.

Though there are economies achieved with a merger, Mr. Borre said, the outcome is essentially a “slow suffocation” of one of the two parishes being forced to combine.

Most of the parishes Sister Kuenstler represents have completed the first step of appeal—at the local level—by formally asking Cardinal Timothy Dolan , the archbishop of New York, to reconsider. She said those churches have received letters in response from Cardinal Dolan upholding his decisions. They expected the response.

The second step in the process, which must be completed by year-end, involves appealing directly to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.

That appeal must include a copy of the official merger decree issued by the Archdiocese of New York. Like a mortgage or a marriage license in the secular world, the decree—which has formal language, and is signed and embossed—is a critical official document, canon-law experts say.

Typically, decree letters are sent to a parish, say canon lawyers and others involved in similar Catholic Church reorganizations around the country. But in New York, that hasn’t happened, Sister Kuenstler said—which may hamstring their appeals.

Some parishioners of churches slated to merge have visited the archdiocese’s Manhattan headquarters to demand to view their decree, she said. Photos and copies of the documents haven’t been allowed by archdiocese officials, according to Sister Kuenstler.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said parishes were given “legitimate notifications” on Nov. 2 through an archdiocesan effort that included the letters read at Masses, publication of the decisions on the archdiocese website and through email and text messages.

“The write-ups of those decrees are just the decisions in written form and do not need to be sent to the parishes,” he said.

Pending a response from the Congregation for the Clergy—which could take 12 to 18 months—parishes can then pursue recourse with the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican high court.

In addition, there are a handful of wild-card options.

Some U.S. parishes have successfully appealed during the process by which a church building is “secularized,” or deconsecrated, before being sold. A bishop or a cardinal needs only a “just cause” to merge a parish, according to Michael Dunnigan, a canon lawyer at the San Antonio-based St. Joseph Foundation—but “he must meet a higher legal standard to secularize a church.”

Some churches have filed a civil case against an archdiocese or sought landmark status for a church building. Both approaches are rarely effective, according to Mr. Borre.

Beyond that, a parish can pursue a “Hail Mary” approach by writing directly to the pope, he said.

Members of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini church in Scituate, Mass., have tried simply digging in their heels: For more than a decade, congregants have organized a 24-hour occupation of the church to keep “our spiritual home intact,” said Jon Rogers, a parishioner.

“We will occupy this church until every avenue of appeal has been exhausted,” said Mr. Rogers.

They are still appealing.

Write to Melanie Grayce West at melanie.west@wsj.com



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