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Feud Halts Construction of Catholic Church in O.C.

Bishop says work on Our Lady of La Vang in Santa Ana won't begin until its pastor agrees to leave so a Vietnamese priest can take over.

September 27, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

A feud between the Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange and one of his priests has indefinitely delayed construction of a $9.3-million church in one of the poorest sections of Orange County.

Bishop Tod D. Brown said Friday that he won't begin the construction of a new building for Our Lady of La Vang Church in Santa Ana until its pastor steps aside to allow the appointment of a Vietnamese priest to head the parish. The groundbreaking had been scheduled for this summer.

Father Bill Barman, pastor of the church since 1993, said the congregation badly needs the new church. The planned replacement would be more than five times the size of its current church, a 200-seat building that dates back generations and is packed on Sundays. "My parishioners are crushed -- and why shouldn't they be?" he said.

Nevertheless, Barman said he will not step down until his term expires in 2007 because he doesn't want the bishop to trample on the needs of the parish's impoverished Latino congregants in favor of Vietnamese Catholics who can better financially support the church.

Though the bishop is Barman's boss, under church law his power to transfer a pastor is limited unless misconduct is evident. After Barman declined a new assignment in June, Brown suspended construction of the church -- a month before groundbreaking was scheduled.

Though the congregation is almost entirely Latino, Brown says a Vietnamese pastor is needed to help serve Orange County's estimated 32,500 Vietnamese Catholics. The diocese hopes that the parish, renamed and with a new and larger building, will attract Vietnamese parishioners from the surrounding area with no church of their own.

"I've determined pastorally that it's best for the parishioners of this new church to have a Vietnamese pastor," Brown said. "But we will have a competent, trilingual staff. Everyone's needs will be met."

Established in the 1920s for Mexican immigrants, the Santa Ana parish operated until 2001 under the name of Our Lady of Lourdes. The name change -- a nod to Vietnamese Catholics -- was initially viewed with suspicion by the mostly Spanish-speaking congregation of 350 families.

Our Lady of La Vang refers to the site in Vietnam where persecuted Catholics believe they saw Mary, mother of Jesus, appear in 1798. For Vietnamese Catholics, it is held in the same reverence Our Lady of Guadalupe is by Latinos.

The name change was made more palatable because Brown announced at the same time that the diocese, for the first time, would pay for land for a parish -- 4.5 acres on Harbor Boulevard near 1st Street, about a mile from the current church -- and the majority of the construction costs. The new church will seat more than 1,100.

When news got out this summer that the bishop had held up the project until a Vietnamese pastor was installed in the revamped parish, angry congregants began to withhold donations to the diocese.

Barman, whose outspokenness has been an irritation to the bishop, said he believes he is being penalized unfairly for heading a church that struggles financially. Weekly donations average about $3,200 -- about $500 short of weekly expenses.

"I'm being punished for being [in] a poor parish," Barman said.

Last spring, the bishop ordered Barman to repay the diocese $50,000 or lay off his two full-time employees and one part-timer. The pastor said his congregants couldn't raise $50,000 and he asked more affluent parishes to help cover the cost of the employees. They are still on the church's payroll.

The diocese has had major financial problems, recording a $28 million deficit over the last two fiscal years and depleting most of its reserves. Brown said he hopes Barman will accept a transfer, but the bishop said he is adamant that construction won't begin until Barman is gone.

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