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Weakland's departure fuels merger opponents

Church activists see hope in new leadership

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. Supreme Court.

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 said.

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, www.savestpatrick.com: "We thank God for our success through the intercession of His Blessed Mother, as we joyfully await the announcement of the next archbishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese."

"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.