World & Nation

Vatican overturns some closures of ethnic churches in Cleveland

When groups of ethnic Polish, Slovene, Slovak and Hungarian Catholics in Cleveland began protesting orders by their local bishop that closed their churches, they were given little chance of reversing the decision.

The churches were shuttered in a massive retrenchment of Cleveland’s urban core in 2010, striking at the Slavic and other ethnic European congregations that were founded by waves of immigrants from the wars and humanitarian catastrophes over the last century. The parishes said that Bishop Richard Lennon, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, had begun an attack on the ethnic churches.

But after two years of sidewalk vigils, letter-writing campaigns and legal action at the Vatican, the largely blue-collar parishioners appear to have won a historic victory against the diocese. A Vatican court, the Congregation of the Clergy, has ordered as many as 13 of the shuttered churches reopened.

“We will really celebrate when we meet inside our church, not on the sidewalk,” said Wojtek Fleszar, a truck driver who has led prayer vigils each Sunday on the street outside of the shuttered St. Casimir, long a center of the local Polish diaspora. “We have been praying for two years outside the church and, believe me, the weather here in Cleveland is something ridiculous.”

Protests were held outside the locked doors at other churches, including the Slovak parish at St. Wendelin, the Hungarian parish at St. Emerik and another Slovak parish at St. John. Other nonethnic parishes, such as the massive St. Patrick church, formed the group Endangered Catholics, which won political endorsements in an organized protest against the diocese. Those churches are among the ones ordered reopened.

Leaders from three closed parishes demanded Thursday evening that the diocese immediately unlock the churches, return property and money that it seized when they were closed, and assign priests so that services can resume.

Lennon issued a statement Thursday that confirmed he had received notification of the rulings from Rome, but he declined to provide details about the legal orders and made no commitment to reopen the churches any time soon. The legal decision was first rumored a week ago, but at the time Lennon denied any knowledge of it and then a spokesman said later he had not opened his mail.

Lennon’s initial orders triggered an open revolt among many Cleveland Catholics. When he conducted the final Masses inside some of the churches, Cleveland police would sit in the pews. At one closing, he was openly mocked when he attempted to defend his actions and said he was “not without sensitivity.”

“I don’t think Lennon understands what hit him,” said Peter Borre, a Catholic activist in Boston who provided legal advice to the Cleveland parishes. “Bishops almost always win.”

Borre said a review he conducted of U.S. church closures over the last 15 years failed to identify a single known case in which a bishop was reversed by the Vatican. Diocese spokesman Robert Tayek did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

Lennon has 60 days to appeal the ruling to the high court of the Vatican.

Lennon had justified the closure orders in 2009 by asserting that the churches were financially insolvent, that the diocese did not have enough priests to staff the parishes, and that few parishioners actually attended services other than on Easter and Christmas.

But the parishes had accused the diocese of closing their churches to seize bank accounts to help pay for confidential legal settlements for allegations of sexual abuse by priests. The diocese acknowledged that it made settlements in sexual abuse cases, but said they came from separate accounts and that it did not need the parish funds to make the payouts.

Financial records produced by the parishioners showed that some of the ethnic churches had million-dollar bank accounts. They said their well-maintained churches were central to their ethnic pride and helped their children understand their heritage.

About half of the more than 50 churches that Lennon ordered closed were ethnic parishes, mainly serving people of Eastern European descent, but also German, Irish and African Americans. Borre said the closings were part of a long-standing friction between the North American Catholic Church and ethnic parishes.

Some of the parishes never appealed their closures.

“On the last day St. Lawrence was open, we handed the diocese a check for $550,000,” said Stanislav Zadnik, a Slovene American electrician who has been among the leaders in the crusade. “They took our painting of the Slovene Madonna. Lennon is an uncomprehending clod.”

Joseph Feckanin, a semi-retired real estate agent, said the fight against Lennon had become a round-the-clock battle that united families as they stood out in the snow and rain over the last two years.

“What has occurred in Cleveland is the people in the pews said no and backed it up in face of all obstacles and ridicule,” Feckanin said. “We will fight to the end.”