Par­ish­ioner­sla­ment­th­elos­sof­t­ra­di­tions aslo­calCatholic­church­es­merge

The Colonial - - OPINION - By Carl Roten­berg

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.

21st Cen­tury Me­dia pho­tos / ADRI­ANNA HOFF

SS. Cos­mas and Damian Church on West Fifth Street in Con­shohocken.

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