Parishioners from two Roman Catholic churches merged into St. Matthew Parish this year are complaining about cavalier treatment by archdiocesan officials, a lack of information about preserving the ethnic religious traditions of the Polish and Italian parishes and the uncertain fate of precious statues of the churches’ saints.
Two longtime members of St. Mary Church on West Elm Street in Conshohocken aired their grievances to The Times Herald, Montgomery Media’s sister publication.
Maryann Stupka, 51, of Whitemarsh, a lifelong member of St. Mary Parish, had been corresponding earlier this year with Archbishop Charles Chaput about keeping St. Mary and the SS. Cosmas and Damian Church on Fifth Avenue open after the merger with St. Matthew’s RC Church.
She asked Chaput if a second parish could be formed from St. Mary, SS. Cosmas and Damian and St. Gertude Church, 200 Bullock Ave., West Conshohocken, the third parish to be merged with St. Matthew.
“I got a reply back that it was not possible. We’ve had some dialogue back and forth,” Stupka said.
That correspondence apparently led the Rev. J. Thomas Heron, pastor of St. Matthew’s, to invite Stupka to attend a pastoral council meeting at St. Matthew’s, she said.
“Father Heron said there are six developers looking at the other three church properties. I asked Father Heron if there was any interest in preserving any of the churches,” Stupka said. “One [pastoral] council member interjected that we ‘have to sell these buildings for as much as we can.’ Father Heron said at the meeting it was not financially feasible to preserve the church buildings.”
Stupka said attending the meeting greatly disturbed her.
“It was the tone of the whole meeting. It was revolting. It seemed like they were acting out of greed,” she said. “One council member asked, ‘Are we sure all of the funds will go to St. Matthew’s?’ That council member did not want the funds to go to the archdiocese.”
Heron said officials of Keystone Property Group of Lower Merion were interested in purchasing the St. Mary Church property “for condominiums and maybe a hotel,” Stupka said.
Attorney David Nasatir, representing KPG, denied the company had any development plans for the West Elm Street church.
“We have no plans for St. Mary,” Nasatir said. “We are not aware of anybody having any construction plans for the church. The first we heard of this was [The Times Herald’s] telephone call.”
Kenneth Gavin, the archdiocesan director of communications, confirmed in an email that six different developers have approached Heron.
“They did so on their own accord. However, he has not entered into discussions or negotiations with any of them,” Gavin wrote. “With regard to rumors that Father Heron is seeking to sell property located at the worship sites, they are just that — rumors. The worship sites remain open and functional. If there were to be any changes in the future, those changes would be determined by the pastor in conjunction with his parish pastoral and finance councils.”
Borough officials from Conshohocken and West Conshohocken said that no developer had filed development plans for any of the three affected churches, including St. Gertrude Church.
Three generations of Eileen Mycek Ryan’s family have attended St. Mary Church and contributed money to the church over many decades, she said.
The certified medical staff coordinator at the Philadelphia Medical Society and her husband, John, have served as eucharistic ministers at the church. John Ryan’s family attended St. Gertrude.
Many St. Mary parishioners were angered that St. Matthew’s Church was chosen by a 5-to-4 vote of a pastoral committee and the lack of respect for the parish’s membership shown by church officials.
“We are absolutely devastated. Everyone believes that change had to be made. But we believed there should still be one Mass per weekend,” Ryan said. “Father Heron should have been at the last Mass on Saturday. These are parishioners who have been together for many years. We have lost each other and we have lost the church.”
Ryan said she was surprised that the church building had not been protected by registering it on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The people have not been told the truth. This church was built by immigrants who sacrificed for our parish,” Ryan said. “It was not done in a proper way.”
Ryan questioned why the surviving church, St. Matthew’s, was not given a new church name to make it more welcoming for the merged parish.
“The parishioners are not the type of person to protest. It was very difficult to have four distinct churches in close proximity,” she said. “Our ancestors were able to make it work.”
The members of St. Mary Church are organizing the new St. Mary Polish American Society, with a social and first membership meeting at 3 p.m. Nov. 23 at the TK Club, 500 E. Hector St., Conshohocken. The mission of the new fraternal organization is to “preserve, enhance and promote awareness and appreciation of Polish history and our Polish cultural heritage for generations to come.” The organizing committee includes Stupka, Ryan, Felcia Jemionek Rzeznik, Kathy Bailey, Jean Daywalt, MaryAnne Derfler, Jay Kunaszuk and Diane Prusinowski.
Jay Kunaszuk, 62, a landscape business owner, has been a member of SS. Cosmas and Damian Church since 1982 and an active volunteer at the annual feast. He was a member of St. Mary Church from 1951 to 1982 and joined the West Fifth Avenue church when he married his wife, Rose Marie.
“We were led to believe they were going to be kept open as worship sites for a year. But it was three months for Mass and then they closed them,” Kunaszuk said. “This is a fiercely ethnic town. Maybe the last one on the planet. I don’t think they factored that in.”
Kunaszuk said he was “hurt and angry.”
“You close down two parishes with strong traditions,” he said.
Kunaszuk has questions about where the religious statues of saints from the three merged churches will end up. They include St. Cosmas, St. Damian, St. Clementine, St. Mary and St. Maximilian Kolb, St. Pope John Paul II and St. Gertrude, he said.
“No one said whether they will be incorporated into St. Matthew’s or put in storage. There was no meeting of the parishes to discuss what will happen in the future,” Kunaszuk said. “Will there be a priest to come to our homes and bless the food on Holy Saturday?”
Kunaszuk explained the annual ritual for Polish families in Conshohocken.
“You did not eat meat on Good Friday. If you were Polish, you could not eat meat until the priest came to your house and blessed the food on Saturday,” he said. “On that day my children are all here with the grandkids and they are waiting for the priest to come because they want to eat. It is a great tradition.”
The next Holy Saturday is April 4, 2015.
The three Kunaszuk daughters and their three children plan to join St. Philip Neri Church in Lafayette Hill, he said.
Karen Birch Chmielewski, of New Hanover, a member of St. Mary Church for more than 40 years, said her family was “just devastated” and “in a state of mourning” over the closing of St. Mary Church. She fought a long time trying to convince the archdiocese to merge the other parishes into St. Mary Church.
“St. Mary was built with blood money. People sacrificed to raise money for the church while the archdiocese and St. Matthew’s did not give a penny to that construction,” Chmielewski said. “It hurts that there is no concern. St. Mary was the only church that fit the criteria for future growth without a lot of construction or demolition. It has parking and a large kitchen. It was a vibrant active church.”
She said the church has 702 registered parishioners and 445 registered households, cash reserves in the bank for “three to four years” of operations and a 39 percent Mass attendance rate in October 2012, compared with 25 percent for St. Matthew’s.
In a Feb. 27 letter to Archbishop Charles Chaput, Chmielewski inquired about a $40,000 addition of offices to a porch area of the St. Matthew’s rectory. At the time of her letter, the decision to merge the four parishes into St. Matthew’s supposedly had not been made, Chmielewski said. Chaput’s decisions on more than a dozen church mergers in the Philadelphia region was released on June 1.
Monsignor Arthur Rogers, the coordinator of archdiocesan planning initiatives, said “St. Mary will not be closing” in a June 10 letter, but the building was closed by the end of September, Chmielewski said.
Heron admits it has been hard to find common ground among the four parishes regarding the pastoral planning process and transition to one parish but he is working diligently to create a unified and vibrant parish community, Gavin said.
Gavin presented a different viewpoint from the parishioners.
“A Transition Team, representing the four parishes in PPA 460, met in June to decide the summer Mass schedule and unanimously agreed that each worship site was to have one Mass per weekend for 10 weeks to help ease the transition into one unified parish at Saint Matthew,” Gavin wrote in an email. “This was not an archdiocesan decision. Decisions about transition occur at the local level with input from members of each of the former parishes. Father Heron is currently continuing to make sure Masses are celebrated at each church every weekend. He is doing so with only two priests on staff at the parish. This scenario is challenging but he is doing all of this for the benefit of the people.”
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on West Elm Street in Conshohocken.
SS. Cosmas and Damian Church on West Fifth Street in Conshohocken.