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take the church,
but not the spirit.
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, July 21, 1999
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Erin-- Gone are the
days when the parish sign in front of old St. Patrick's Church here
announced Mass schedules and confessions, or told passers-by the name of
the local priest whose door could be knocked upon in times of need.
Instead, on a brilliant summer Tuesday that would
make the most inveterate agnostic raise upward an eye, there was taped
over the glass in large and determined script a different sort of
"They can take our money and
they can take our signs, but we will keep on praying and we will survive.
Only 959 days until St. Pat's reopens!"
It was a message of faith and hope-- and defiance --
rather than fact. The archdiocese last month merged this small but vibrant
144-year-old country parish with St. Kilian Catholic Church in Hartford,
and there is no reason to believe Archbishop Rembert Weakland -- whose
retirement happens to be, according to folks here, somewhere around 959
days off -- will change his mind.
You cannot have a parish, says the archdiocese,
without a priest.
And yet how else to describe what remains here
St. Patrlck's is a simple church all of white, little
embellished from the outside or adorned, but for the stained glass windows
that line its nave. It is a church that ministered mostly to Catholics,
but even a local Lutheran minister says losing St. Patrick's is like
losing the center of a community.
Erin is stunning, with its rolling hills of green and
narrow, tortuous roads. But it is a town, not a city, and it has no real
community focal point other than this one. Some here would like to build a
new town center for the future; others would like to start by saving the
old town center of the past. In the meantime, St. Patrick's will remain a
chapel for use only on special occasions.
Some parishioners have dispersed to other parishes.
But every Tuesday, dozens of others have been meeting-- first in the
church itself until they were no longer allowed a key, and now in the Town
Hall--to discuss how they might persevere. Most would dearly like
permission to find a part-time or retired priest who could say a single
"They are angry," said
Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, who built her home on nearby St.
Patrick's Circle because of its proximity to St. Pat's. "They cannot
understand why they cannot have one Mass (per week) at this church."
It is not, suggests the archdiocese's communications
director, Jerry Topczewski, quite so simple.
"There is more to a vibrant Catholic community
than a Mass on Sunday," he says.
Parishioners are undeterred, and bewilderment has
metamorphosed into anger in some quarters as the archdiocese moves to take
over -- in archdiocesan words "protect'' -- what remains of church
"The last words I had with the archbishop were
they were a bunch of robbers and thieves, and we left it at that,"
said Frank Weber, a St. Patrick's trustees whose name was, without his
acquiescence, recently removed from parish bank accounts. "He was
very disappointed and said so, and I said I did not care."
Weber's roots run deep. His parents were married at
St. Patrick's 55 years ago, and he himself, one of nine, was baptized
there in 1946--- on St. Patrick's Day no less. His own kids have, in turn,
all received their sacraments there, and one day at least some of his
family will probably rest in St. Patrick's cemetery across the street.
There is no talk here of what prompts salvation. Nor
is there much discussion of why, last year, there was only one priest--an
unmarried male need it be mentioned? -- ordained in the entire archdiocese
Instead, it is to the people who grew up here,
spiritually and otherwise, plus those who have lately joined them, simply
a matter of surprise, if not exactly disbelief, that what was built here
with their own sweat and fervent prayers suddenly, for reasons well beyond
them, seems to belong to somebody else.
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