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churchgoers file lawsuit
over parish mergers.
Archdiocese had no
right to close churches,
members of two congregations say
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Friday March 3rd, 2000
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel- Metro Edition
Two groups of dissident Roman Catholic
parishioners jointly filed a lawsuit Thursday, contending that the
Archdiocese of Milwaukee has no right under Wisconsin law to merge
The groups are from two parishes that
were closed in separate actions within the past year over the objections
of lay trustees, St. Patrick in the Town of Erin in Washington County, and
St. Casimir in Kenosha.
Members of those churches generated
some of the most vocal opposition anywhere in the 10-county archdiocese
after Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland announced in November 1997 that about
40 parishes would be closed through mergers by July 2001 because of a
priest shortage and population shifts.
"I'll tell you why we're doing
it, because we feel the archbishop has violated civil law, and I feel
somebody has to take a stand," Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, a
member of Save St. Patrick Parish, said in a recent interview before the
suit was filed.
"It's wrong what he did. We were
a viable parish. We are in the fastest-growing county in the state of
Wisconsin. There was no reason to close our church. We had over $100,000
in the bank."
Their lawsuit is the first such court
challenge sparked by Weakland's decision, which was based on the
recommendations of a 15-member commission.
At the local level, the suit seeks to have both St. Patrick and St.
Casimir reopened, re-staffed at their previous levels, and re-funded by
returning bank deposits that were transferred to a new or merged parish.
But the suit, if it succeeds, has much
larger ramifications. It is, in effect, challenging the legal foundation
upon which parish mergers in dioceses throughout Wisconsin apparently have
"As of yet, we have not been
served or seen the lawsuit, and so have been unable to review its
contents," said Jerry Topczewski, archdiocesan communications
director, Thursday afternoon. "Therefore, we can't comment on its
allegations. "However, with regard to the archdiocese's procedures
for parish mergers, we are confident that all civil and church laws were
Russell Bohach, the Milwaukee attorney
representing the parishioner groups, differed.
"We're looking to the courts to determine whether or not Wisconsin
statutes give the Roman Catholic Church the Power to merge parishes over
the objection of parishioners, and that, essentially, is what this
The suit's chances of success are
difficult to estimate, partly because the challenge centers on a gray area
of the law.
A section of the statutes covers
incorporated religious organizations. But there are separate sections that
deal with some specific denominations, including the Roman Catholic
The dissidents note that the general
statute allows church mergers and consolidations, but the subsequent
section dealing with Catholic churches excludes Catholic churches from the
provisions of the general statute. And the Catholic section doesn't say
whether mergers and consolidations are permitted.
There are two ways of looking at this,
said Dan Fernbach, senior staff attorney with the Legislative Counsel, in
an interview last fall.
One can argue that it's OK to do
something as long as it isn't specifically prohibited, or one can argue
that there was legislative intent to exclude mergers and consolidations
from being legal because the law specifically mentions other actions as
The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the
public policy arm of the church, tried to clarify that issue last year by
getting legislators to introduce a bill spelling out the merger process.
The bill passed the Assembly and the
Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.
About three-fourths of the announced
mergers in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have been completed, Topczewski
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