St. Mary's Catholics take case to Vatican

Kristie Pauldine, member of the St. Mary of the Assumption Church Preservation Society, speaks to parishioners in June about the group's plans to challenge the Syracuse Diocese's decree merging St. Mary's Church with Christ the Good Shepherd. In early July, the society filed an appeal with Vatican officials in Rome to review the consolidation process. 

OSWEGO — Port City parishioners have appealed to Catholic officials in Rome, challenging the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse’s decree establishing St. Paul’s Church as the site of Oswego’s newly consolidated parish.

Members of the St. Mary of the Assumption Preservation Group say they want transparency from the diocese about the formation of the consolidated Christ the Good Shepherd out of the city’s four parishes — St. Paul’s, St. Mary of the Assumption, St. Joseph’s and St. Stephen the King — and have called on one of the highest Roman Catholic governing bodies to examine the 18-month consolidation process for foul play or lapses in judgment.

According to documents obtained by The Palladium-Times, local church leaders understood since 2007 that diminishing parishioner attendance and building maintenance costs put pressure on the Port City’s Roman Catholic parishes to merge their assets. In 2017, an 18-month survey began to examine which site had the capacity to contain the city’s Catholic community.

The preservation group was formed out of church trustees and parishioners concerned about the fate of St. Mary’s after it was not chosen to be the site of the city’s consolidated parish. The group submitted in early July an appeal to Bishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio and Vatican ambassador to the U.S., who forwarded the appeal to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.

The appeal calls for a comprehensive review of the process that led to the formation of Christ the Good Shepherd at the St. Paul’s site, said preservation group member Kristie Pauldine, a lead negotiator with the diocese, in an interview with the Palladium-Times on Monday.

“We are asking for the decrees that were released [by the diocese] to be reviewed and the process that led up to consolidation to be reviewed also,” Pauldine said.

Currently, they are awaiting a response from Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.

“This is not a quick process,” Pauldine said. “I know there are up to 90 days for Rome to make their decision, but they can give themselves extensions. They can ask for more information from us or communicate back and forth with the diocese.”

Rev. John Canorro, who was appointed pastor of Christ the Good Shepherd by the diocese at the end of May, said in a Monday interview Catholic leaders in Rome likely won’t go against the bishop’s decree.

“This will be a little bit interesting because technically [St. Mary’s] isn’t closed — it’s still an oratory church,” Canorro said, noting that former Bishop Robert Cunningham acted within his boundaries of canon law when he issued a decree to merge the four parishes. “I don’t know if Rome is going to say that the bishop couldn’t do that.”

As “oratory churches,” St. Mary of the Assumption, St. Joseph’s and St. Stephen the King church operate as “arms” of the newly formed parish, where baptisms, weddings, funerals and other sacramental events can take place, Canorro said. However, the bishop’s June 20, 2019 decree transferring St. Mary’s assets to the new parish gives the diocese the power to sell the church property if it is left to neglect.

“In the event of disrepair, fiscal burden or repurposing, St. Mary of the Assumption Church will be relegated to profane not sordid use,” states the decree.

Fearing the St. Mary’s church structure will suffer the same fate as St. Louis’s Church, which collapsed on West Bridge Street in 2010, preservation group members, parishioners and concerned citizens were galvanized into action and pledged to raise money and sent their petitions to Syracuse Diocese officials.

The diocese was not moved, maintaining that the bishop had full authority of decree to decide the status of the churches. On the advice of their legal counsel, attorneys Brody Hale and Philip C.L. Gray, preservation society members filed their appeal to the Vatican in July.

Gray, reached by phone on Monday, declined to comment on the preservation group’s appeal.

Bishop Cunningham announced his resignation from the Diocese of Syracuse this summer, and Pope Francis appointed Bishop Douglas Lucia to be his successor. Lucia was installed at a Syracuse ceremony last week.

With leadership change at the diocesan level, a faction of St. Mary’s advocates aims to take a less combative approach by negotiating with the newly appointed Lucia. Preservation group member and former Oswego Mayor John Sullivan, one of the parishioners spearheading this charge, said the newly appointed bishop has agreed to meet and is working out a time when they can begin talks. 

“We have established a constructive dialogue with the new bishop and we are looking forward to meeting with him in the near term to talk about issues regarding St. Mary’s,” Sullivan said.

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