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After long, valiant fight, St. Mary Church is closing

Monica Pullano was thankful to be part of St. Mary Parish even if it was for just one more day, after parishioners heard the stunning announcement on Oct. 13, 2007, that the church would soon be closed.

As it turned out, members of St. Mary spent almost four additional years in their beloved Catholic church on a bank of the Erie Canal in downtown Lockport.

But the extra time is now winding down. After exhausting all options with the Vatican to stay open longer, the 152-year-old parish is gathering today for a final Sunday Mass.

"I'll be bringing plenty of Kleenex, I know that," said Pullano, a Lockport resident.

The congregation on Thursday will merge with All Saints in Lockport, and St. Mary will be converted to oratory status, which means parish activities and regular Sunday worship won't be held there any longer.

"We're at the end of the road on this," said Jean Skop, also of Lockport. "It's hard to see something so good end."

More than any other Catholic parish in the Diocese of Buffalo, the people of St. Mary fought the closure tooth and nail.

They spent about $50,000 on canon lawyers to press their case in Vatican courts. They organized letter-writing campaigns to Bishop Edward U. Kmiec. In 2008, they rented a large billboard space just a few blocks from the diocese's chancery offices on Main Street, for a sign that read, "Why Should St. Marys, Lockport CLOSE? Over 1,000 Families Want To Know."

The combativeness paid off by keeping the parish intact years after diocesan officials dealt with several dozen other parishes.

"It is considered a gift. We had four years we would not have had if it weren't for the appeal," said Marcia Seibel, a parish trustee. "The four years have not been wasted."

Parishioners are still at a loss as to why their church of roughly 1,200 families was targeted for closure.

"The way the Catholic Church has been taking hits for the past few years, and here's a good thing and they're knocking it down," parish member Doug Michalski said. "At this time, why stop a good thing? They're taking a community that's really being good Catholics, and they're destroying it."

Unlike most other merged parishes where membership had dwindled badly, finances were bleak and Mass participation sparse, the people of St. Mary could still boast of vibrant ministries, full Sunday Masses and balanced ledger sheets.

"I do my grieving behind closed doors and in my car," Seibel said. "It is very, very difficult, and we are all going to go to our graves trying to understand why."

The landscape of the eight-county diocese has changed dramatically over the past four years.

In 2005, when diocesan officials launched a historic restructuring process that they termed "Journey in Faith & Grace," the diocese had 265 parishes. That number now stands at 168.

Another parish that appealed -- St. Adalbert in Buffalo's Fillmore district -- is scheduled to have a final Mass Sept. 18 before being converted to oratory status.

But parishioners there are trying to persuade Kmiec to allow weekly Masses after that date.

"Why not let us turn the key, walk in and praise God in our home, the place we've called home for 125 years?" said Lori Dinero, a parish trustee. "We're a family, it's our home. Why kick us out?"

Meanwhile, parishioners of St. Ann are awaiting word from the Vatican about their appeal of Kmiec's recent decree to close the church at Broadway and Emslie Street. St. Ann will remain open, with regular Masses on Sundays, until the appeal is decided. If the Vatican concurs with the bishop, the diocese already has a buyer lined up for the ornate Gothic revival structure.

For many members, the closing of St. Mary has raised larger issues about the future of Catholicism.

A growing shortage of priests was one of the impetuses behind the diocesan restructuring -- although St. Mary parishioners maintained that their pastor, the Rev. Gary Kibler, had agreed to stay until his planned retirement in 2015.

Kibler, who has been appointed senior parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Swormville, effective Sept. 1, did not return calls to comment.

Nonetheless, the diocese is now down to about 185 active priests, and another wave of retirements is forecast that will bring that number closer to 140 within the next four years, while only a handful of seminarians are in training to be ordained.

"I guess the church should look at alternate priesthood. You don't close a viable community," Pullano said. "If the shortage of priests is the issue, then let's look at that issue."

The Vatican might need to re-examine its restrictions against ordaining women and married men, Pullano said.

"What bothers me is people think that churches are being closed because there's only 10 or 15 older members there, and they can't sustain it financially or in other ways," she added.

Rather than mollify parishioners, Kmiec's most recent decree to keep St. Mary open as an oratory seemed to antagonize them.

Many members viewed the move as a canon law "end around" a new Vatican reluctance to shutter church buildings.

By changing his decree from an outright closure to a reduction of the church to oratory status, Kmiec effectively put an end to the parishioners' appeal before the highest Vatican court could rule on it.

"They knew the Signatura doesn't like to close churches," said Michael Ulrich, another parish trustee. "They were running scared I believe. They felt if this thing continues on, and this parish stays open, it makes the bishop look pretty bad."

The diocese has no plans at this point to close more churches, although as part of "Journey in Faith & Grace," a few parish configurations and worship sites can still be "revisited" for possible changes.

Technically, St. Mary parishioners still have two active appeals with the Vatican -- although they also realize it's highly unlikely Kmiec's latest decree will be overturned.

"There's still a glimmer of hope," said Seibel.

Diocesan officials would like to wrap up all of the parish mergers and building closures before a new bishop is appointed to replace Kmiec, who turned 75 in June and has submitted resignation papers to the Vatican, as per canon law. The completion of the massive restructuring will be explained in detail in a report that Kmiec is scheduled to deliver to Pope Benedict XVI during a visit in November.

The report provides a five-year rundown on activities within a diocese.

After today, members of St. Mary will meet as a parish community for a final time on Wednesday evening for a special benediction service. It's unclear where they'll end up after that.

Some people have signed up to become part of All Saints, the merged Lockport parish. Other families said they would check out various congregations and become "roamin' Catholics," at least for a while, searching for a similar ethos and spirituality that existed at St. Mary.

"We'll all go forward. Our faith is strong. But for a lot of us, our religion is faltering," said Skop.

Several dozen people have indicated they would be part of a new group called St. Mary Renaissance that will meet for prayer, meditation and music initially on Sept. 10 in a Protestant church.

The group isn't intended at this point to be a breakaway congregation, as much as a way to keep people together in the event the outstanding appeals end up in favor of parishioners, said an organizer, Ted Hadley.

"People say, 'Oh, I'll be there, but I don't know if they will,' " said Hadley. "They're mad, but I don't know if they're passionate enough to come out."