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Cleveland's Catholic Church closures leave ethnic enclaves dispirited

Proud Eastern European communities fight to save what they see as a cultural heritage.

June 14, 2010|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cleveland — On a back street in urban Cleveland, Hungarian immigrants built St. Emeric Catholic Church, where a dozen stained glass windows recall their history and a mural of their first king, St. Stephen, overlooks the altar.

For more than 100 years, waves of Hungarians swept into Cleveland from the wars and upheavals in Europe, finding work in the area's steel mills and auto plants. They were part of a tide of Eastern Europeans who became a backbone of the industrial economy here.

But the factories have been closing in recent decades, and now the churches are closing too.

Under orders of Cleveland Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon, St. Emeric parish will be eliminated and the church, along with an adjoining Hungarian Boy Scout center and a cultural school, will be closed.

In one of the largest retrenchments of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Lennon ordered the closure of 50 parishes in his diocese, more than half of them with ethnic congregations — largely Eastern European.

The final closures are occurring this month, fueling sadness and anger among parishioners.

"I pray every day to keep St. Emeric open," said Joseph Balint, who immigrated to Cleveland and worked at a naval weapons factory after he fought in the Hungarian revolution. "It is really a sad story, but I believe in miracles."

The communities are not going down without a fight. They have marched on the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland and petitioned the church courts in Rome. Each Sunday, a group of Poles gathers outside the closed St. Casimir Church on the northeastern side of the city, praying and singing the Polish national anthem.

"These tough men came to this country and built churches for themselves," said Malgosia Feckanin, who left Poland during the Cold War and prays outside St. Casimir. "Now this man, Richard Lennon, wants to take them away. It reminds me so much of communism."

So far, Lennon has not backed off. On many Sundays, he personally says a final Mass at the churches scheduled for closure, though he is sometimes unwelcome.

Plainclothes Cleveland police sit in the pews and uniformed officers have a heavy presence outside. Protest signs refer to the diocese as "Lennongrad."

"I am not without sensitivity," a beleaguered Lennon told a congregation being closed in Akron this year. Howls of laughter erupted from the pews.

The problems in Cleveland are affecting much of the industrial Midwest, where ethnic enclaves have been hit hard during the long industrial decline. Dioceses in Scranton, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit have gone through similar shrinkages but without the public clash that has occurred in Cleveland.

Robert Tayek, a diocese spokesman, said Lennon was being blamed unfairly for a process that began before he arrived. Lennon took over on May 15, 2006, when it was already clear that Cleveland had too many parishes in its urban core.

The closures have been driven by monetary losses in many of the parishes, migration to the suburbs and a shortage of priests, Tayek said.

That explanation is sharply disputed by some of the parishes, which contend they are financially healthy and have recruited foreign-born priests to conduct services in native languages. The closures are pushing them into what they call impersonal suburban churches.

"Lennon wants a homogenized product," said Stanislav Zadnik, an electrician unemployed since November 2008. On June 20, Zadnik's Slovene parish, St. Lawrence, is scheduled to close.

Lennon supports the ethnic role the Catholic Church plays in Cleveland, Tayek said, but at some of those churches, "you can throw a baseball and not hit anybody." In many cases, he said, the parishioners drive into the urban neighborhoods only for church services, and then often only on holidays.

A former television news reporter, Tayek identifies himself as a Bohemian — half Slovak and half Czech. His grandfather worked in a steel mill, he said.

The sharp reaction has surprised the bishop, Tayek acknowledged. The diocese has received e-mailed threats of violence, he said.

About 10 parishes have filed formal appeals with Catholic courts in Rome. Even while those appeals are under review, the diocese has put some church properties up for sale, another sore point with the closed congregations.

In another effort to stop the closures, Nancy McGrath sued Lennon and the diocese, challenging their legal authority to move without the consent of the parishes. The diocese countersued, charging her with trespassing after a church service.

McGrath, who formed the Code Purple protest group, claims the diocese has a hidden agenda of grabbing parish bank accounts to pay off confidential settlements involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

St. Wendelin had $1.2 million in its account, St. Emeric $1.3 million and St. Lawrence $990,000, according to figures compiled by Endangered Catholics, a group formed to protest the church closures.

Tayek acknowledged that the diocese had made confidential legal settlements for sexual abuse claims, but he said the cost was covered by special reserves and that none of the church closings was based on a need to pay such claims.

The diocese, rather than seizing parish assets, will transfer money with the congregations when parishes are merged, Tayek said.

The bishop's explanations fail to ring true in many of the tidy churches where closings are tearing apart friendships that go back a lifetime and threatening to loosen people's grips on their cultural identities.

"We built these churches on the sweat and money of our ancestors who came here," said John Juhasz, a member of St. Emeric. "The closings are an assault on the ethnic component of the church."

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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