Weakland's departure fuels merger opponents
Church activists see hope in new leadership
By DAN BENSON
of the Journal Sentinel staffLast Updated: June 24, 2002Members of
four closed Roman Catholic parishes say they are hopeful that a new
Milwaukee archbishop might be more sympathetic to their complaints and
either reopen their churches or allow Masses to be held there.
We have another opportunity for appeal, and we're going to take it.
- Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel,
organizer of parishioners of St. Patrick parish
In Cedarburg, a group of St. Francis Borgia parishioners on Monday
delivered a letter to Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba asking the Milwaukee
Archdiocese to delay the final merger of their parish with Divine Word
Catholic church until Archbishop Rembert Weakland's successor is named.
Meanwhile, members of three other closed churches say Weakland's
resignation was an answer to their prayers, renewing hope that their
parishes may be restored, even though a Vatican court has reportedly
rejected their claim that the closure violated canon law.
Archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski said the archdiocese was informed
recently by its advocate in Rome that the Supreme Tribunal of the
Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court, had rejected the appeal.
The Signatura's opinion has not been published.
"We consider that, once all the paperwork is in place, this case will be
closed," Topczewski said, comparing the decision to one made by the U.S.
Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, an organizer of parishioners of the
146-year-old St. Patrick parish in the Town of Erin, challenged that
statement, saying her side has one more appeal left.
"We have another opportunity for appeal, and we're going to take it," she
Parishioners of St. Patrick, St. Casimir in Kenosha and St. Joseph in
Cudahy filed a lawsuit in March 2000, contending that the archdiocese had
no right under Wisconsin law to merge parishes.
When that suit was rejected by a Milwaukee County circuit judge, they
appealed to the Signatura saying the closure violated church law.
47 fewer congregations
Weakland initiated a series of mergers in the 10-county archdiocese in
1997, prompted by a shortage of priests and demographic changes, that has
reduced the number of congregations from 273 to 226.
Alan Kershaw, the dissidents' lawyer in Rome, said in a telephone
interview that he expects to receive the Signatura's ruling this week and
to file an appeal soon afterward.
"I don't even know what their reasoning is until I see what is written in
their decree," he said, adding that he found it "unusual" that the
archdiocese had already learned of the decision through its advocate.
Whatever the outcome of the appeal process, Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel and
the leaders of the St. Joseph and St. Casimir groups said they were
encouraged by Weakland's resignation in May, which was quickly accepted by
the Vatican after he admitted to a relationship in the early 1980s with a
man to whom the archdiocese paid $450,000.
"Do we feel vindicated? Do we feel like this was a miracle? Yes we do,"
Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel said.
Weakland's ouster is celebrated on her group's Web site,
thank God for our success through the intercession of His Blessed Mother,
as we joyfully await the announcement of the next archbishop of the
"We're certainly more optimistic" now that Weakland has stepped down,
Frank Mrnik of the St. Joseph's group said. "He was the one that
originated" the move to close dozens of churches.
The archdiocese is negotiating the sale of the 95-year-old St. Joseph
parish to Bay View Assembly of God, but closing the sale is on hold while
the appeals are heard.
The Rev. Manny Castro, pastor of Bay View Assembly of God, said the
archdiocese has offered to help finance the sale.
Jerry Malsack of St. Casimir said his group is "obviously waiting for the
new bishop" in hopes of getting a more sympathetic hearing.
In Cedarburg, the letter from some St. Francis Borgia members to Sklba
asks that the final merger of their church with Divine Word be delayed
"until a new archbishop has been named, with the hope he might bring fresh
and unbiased insight to the situation."
According to church officials, the Divine Word-St. Francis Borgia merger
was voluntary and not forced by the archdiocese.
But Dennis Christoffel, who hand-delivered the letter Monday to the
archdiocese, said the consensus among parishioners was that "we had no
choice" but to accept the plan.
The 1,000-family Divine Word, on Covered Bridge Road in the Town of
Cedarburg, was rechristened St. Francis Borgia-North last fall, and the
historic district parish, built in 1870 and with a membership of 1,200
families, was renamed St. Francis Borgia-South.
Since then, weekend Masses have not been held at St. Francis Borgia-South
on Washington Ave.