OSWEGO — Diocese of Syracuse Bishop Douglas Lucia on Monday suspended Oswego’s ongoing Catholic consolidation to find what he said is hopefully a more unifying arrangement for the city’s splintered faith community.
Lucia’s announcement of a 90-day moratorium on consolidation action reverses a May decree by now-retired Bishop Robert Cunningham that set St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church as the home of the new parish.
Known as Christ the Good Shepherd, the single parish was formed this year from the congregations of St. Mary of the Assumption, St. Stephen the King, St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s.
Tensions among Port City Catholics and diocese officials reached a fever pitch in mid-September when a statue of St. Francis of Assisi was relocated from St. Mary of the Assumption church to St. Paul’s. Diocese officials said they were installing a commemoration for St. Mary’s church, as it had supposedly been incorporated in the four-parish merge.
Hours before the newly appointed Bishop Lucia was scheduled to deliver Monday night mass at St. Joseph’s, the statue was returned to St. Mary’s church. This would prove to foreshadow Lucia’s promise to “reverse the decree” of his predecessor and “re-open the churches,” while the newly installed bishop can educate himself in the consolidation process and the sources of its controversy, which began 16 months prior to his August 2019 appointment.
“I’m not going to let this drag on, so I’m giving this a 90-day period for review,” Lucia told parishioners Monday evening at an open forum following his 7 p.m. mass celebration. “There are reports and reports that went into the decision, so I need some time to study everything, but in studying everything, with the help of people here, we’ll be able to see, ‘Was it too much too fast?’ and different things like that.”
Lucia did not speculate as to what the outcome of his review would be, but made it clear that Christ the Good Shepherd is, and would continue to remain, a permanent part of Oswego Catholic life. The review would also include the “voices” of all the Port City’s Catholics, including St. Peter’s church, previously omitted from the unification effort.
“My goal here is not to undo Christ the Good Shepherd parish. My goal is to address some of the concerns. The process isn’t starting all over again,” Lucia told parishioners. “However, I do think it’s okay for us to take a step back and look at what has happened.”
In June 2018, local church officials formally announced their intention to form a new parish out of Oswego’s four churches and all four would hand over their assets and property to the governance of the new parish. Diocese officials said the three church campuses would remain oratory churches, or “arms” of Christ the Good Shepherd, citing the cost of maintaining four independent churches, and the declining rates of church-going Catholics.
According to interviews with diocese leaders and documents reviewed by The Palladium-Times, the cost to maintain St. Mary’s — whose prominent spire and dramatic Gothic architecture have cut an imposing figure on West Seventh Street for generations — was the main reason for the church not getting the designation as Christ the Good Shepherd’s main campus.
A St. Mary’s preservation activist group formed after Cunningham’s decree, alleging that the diocese violated canonical law when it mandated St. Mary’s closure as an independent parish when it can be financially maintained by its congregates. St. Mary’s lay leaders have maintained their internal fundraising is enough to keep the church up and running.
The preservation group sent nearly 200 signatures refuting the bishop’s decree before filing an appeal with the Vatican in Rome. Lucia said the Congregation of the Clergy, the Vatican’s body responsible for overseeing priests and deacons, recently reviewed the appeal.
Congregation Prefect Beniamino Stella then asked Lucia to suspend the decrees and review the process before issuing more, “and this time,” Lucia vowed, “it’s going to be what we come up with together.”
Reaction to Lucia’s announcement Monday was far from unanimous, however, as Catholics from each of the city’s parishes were represented at the town hall meeting. Many said the four-parish merge should proceed so the churches can invest their resources into evangelizing new Catholics and supporting future generations to maintain the church.
“If we could take all the time and effort and money we are putting into maintaining four walls and invested that money in our children and our Catholic schools, that would be what Jesus would have put his own money into,” Oswego’s Jonathan Shaver said. “Jesus taught mission, not maintenance.”