OSWEGO — Hundreds of local Catholics Monday joined ranks to challenge Bishop Robert Cunningham’s decision of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church as the site of the city’s newly consolidated parish.
A petition, en route to the Diocese of Syracuse, states the signatories’ opposition to the merger of St. Mary of the Assumption with another parish, citing the risk of the revered church building to fall into neglect or be repurposed as commercialized real estate.
The effort is led by the self-styled “St. Mary’s Preservation Group,” formed after the Diocese of Syracuse shocked local Catholics in mid-May when officials named St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church as the site of the city’s newly consolidated parish, Christ the Good Shepherd. The 18-month process of selecting one of Oswego’s four Catholic church campuses to accommodate their combined 1,200 congregants left several parishioners feeling duped, denied, left out and ignored by diocese leadership.
All those feelings were on display Monday at the Oswego Ancient Order of Hibernians as the petitioners met to plan their next move.
“I believe in the infallibility of the pope but I do not believe in the infallibility of the Bishop of Syracuse,” said former Oswego Mayor John T. Sullivan, Jr., speaking during the meeting.
Kristie Pauldine, a St. Mary’s parishioner at the vanguard of the charge to preserve the church, said an empty bank account and lack of long term funding plan for St. Mary’s could give diocese leadership the excuse they need to permanently close down the church and sell the property.
“Our ultimate hope is to retain the parish of St. Mary’s,” Pauldine said. “However, if that is not possible, we hope to retain St. Mary of the Assumption church as an oratory chapel or shrine. But we, above all, oppose any sale of any church building.”
Parishioners from St. Mary’s said they were unwilling to sit idly by and watch the potential degradation of the cherished 74-year-old landmark. A motivated group led by Pauldine and other local St. Mary’s faithful formed the ad hoc committee to preserve the church building, if not the entire parish.
July 1 marks the date when the city’s four existing parishes — St. Paul’s, St. Stephen the King, St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s of the Assumption — are legally incorporated as a single entity, according to diocese officials. With each parish’s existing funds set to be transferred into that of Christ the Good Shepherd, diocese leaders have not clearly stated what will happen to the church campuses left in the wake of consolidation.
By signing the petition Monday, parishioners entered into an ecclesiastical appeals process with the Diocese of Syracuse and appointed Pauldine as “procurator” to represent them in negotiations with diocese officials. According to the petition, which authors said was composed to be consistent with Canon Law of the Catholic Church, Pauldine as acting procurator has the power to renounce action or strike a bargain in negotiations with diocese officials and appoint an advocate in Rome to appeal to the Vatican on petitioners’ behalf.
Canon law expert Brody Hale, who said in a Tuesday interview with The Palladium-Times his work with the local committee is pro bono, is providing legal counsel and strategic planning in talks with diocese officials.
Hale, a licensed attorney in Massachusetts who said he has spent the last seven years independently working to mitigate the loss of Catholic churches around the U.S., said he drew Pauldine’s attention as a canon law expert who successfully guided 15 Catholic groups to “work out agreements with their dioceses...which have allowed church buildings that would have otherwise been closed and sold to remain Roman Catholic sacred spaces.”
With a canon law expert in their corner, Pauldine told concerned parishioners Monday night that canon law is “on [their] side.”
The petitioners’ case for St. Mary’s preservation argues while Bishop Cunningham has “basically unrestrained power to merge the parishes of Oswego in any way he wishes,” canon law does not provide bishops with the authority to close or sell church campuses or structures unless “grave” cause can be cited.
Brody said “grave” reasoning refers to extreme cases like wholesale destruction of the building from fire or natural disaster or a lack of funding to sustain long-term operations, cited by the diocese as the prime reason for the merge.
However, funding can come from any source, whether private donations or public grants, and Pauldine said the St. Mary’s community has a robust tradition of charitable giving to church functions.
Pauldine and other St. Mary’s advocates told the gathered crowd at the Hibernians their plan is to appeal Bishop Cunningham’s decision during a time of leadership transition to Bishop-elect Douglas Lucia, effectively installed Aug. 8. In negotiations, Pauldine and committee members said they plan to demonstrate to the diocese leadership that St. Mary’s community has the resources and funding to support its own maintenance.
Proving the parish’s self-sustaining capability would, in principle, invalidate the diocese’s claim that financial struggles forced the bishop to cease parish functions at three Catholic churches, Pauldine said.
“During this time, it will be vitally important to remain active and dedicated and to quickly raise funds in order to support St. Mary’s with legal fees as well as show a means of financial support,” she said, noting the parish community raised $70,000 in fundraising efforts in the last fiscal year. “It may be necessary for our group to show we have the monetary ability to support and provide for our sacred church.”
Committee leaders are exploring every funding avenue available, starting with a fundraiser drive for the newly created “St. Mary of the Assumption Preservation Fund.”