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St. Mary's to host Christmas Eve Mass; parishioners hopeful

It's not necessarily a reprieve or a grand reopening, but for the second time this month, St. Mary Church in Lockport will host a Mass for area Catholics.

A Christmas Eve Mass is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday in the Saxton Street church.

And thanks to a new decree issued by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, more regular worship might resume inside the sanctuary that was closed in September.

The decree, issued in November, is the latest maneuver in an ongoing canonical process at the Vatican that involves St. Mary parish and dates back nearly four years.

Kmiec changed the canonical status of St. Mary's from an oratory -- where worship is held only on special occasions -- to a church that can be used in a "limited way" at the discretion of the bishop and the pastor of the parish that owns the church.

What exactly the change in status means isn't entirely clear at this point, but it seems to make possible the opportunity for more regular worship at St. Mary's -- at least according to parishioners who have been fighting for years to keep the doors of their church open.

"I would argue that there is a definite difference between an oratory and a church. That to me is a huge difference," said Marcia Seibel, a parish trustee. "I don't know canon law, but I'm guessing there is a great deal of importance placed on the designation of a worship space."

But a diocesan spokesman said that practically speaking, the change in designation doesn't alter how Lockport-area Catholics will be gathering for worship.

"It really doesn't change anything. The merger is still in effect," said Kevin A. Keenan.

As part of a massive parish restructuring, the diocese in 2007 moved to merge five Lockport parishes into two -- All Saints, located in St. Patrick Church on Church Street, and St. John the Baptist on Chestnut Street.

The diocese's priest shortage makes it difficult to keep more buildings open than necessary, Keenan said.

"At the end of the day, we still don't have enough priests. That's a big problem," he said.

The people of St. Mary's resisted the merger and appealed to Vatican courts to prevent it.

The latest move was a "step in the right direction," said Michael Ulrich, another trustee.

Ulrich said canon law stipulates that Mass be held at least twice a month inside a building with a canonical status of church.

St. Mary's hosted a full crowd Dec. 8 for an evening Mass on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation.

"How many holy days do you see standing room only in a church?" said Ulrich.

The Rev. Joseph Vatter, pastor of All Saints, agreed to celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass, which is expected to bring another full house of St. Mary's congregants.

How many more Masses will be held there remains an open question.

"If it's a worship site, we should be able to worship," said Seibel.

Vatter could not be reached to comment.

Ulrich predicted that if St. Mary's resumed regular worship, 85 to 90 percent of parishioners would return.

"We have a very close-knit group of people," he said.