The church was closed in 2005 by orders of the bishop. It was part of a clustering program by the Diocese of Toledo — an order that also caused the closing of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Reed Township, which also is slated for demolition this year.
Parishioners of the two parishes were asked to attend a third area church, St. Gaspar del Bufalo on County Road 46 in Bellevue.
“My families went there,” said Chelsea Arndt, who is helping in the fight to save the church building, which opened in 1857.
“My grandpa’s side of the family went to Bismark and my grandma’s side of the family went to Assumption (of the Blessed Virgin Mary), which both of those are part that which’s been closed by the diocese. It's heartbreaking. It’s terrible to see a historical structure that holds so many memories and connections for people torn down.”
Arndt said those in support of St. Sebastian and other churches in the clustering, started a Facebook page, St. Sebastian Bismark, on Feb. 5. In just four days, 263 people started to follow the page, rallying for support of the parish.
In a letter submitted to the Norwalk Reflector on Friday, former parishioners of St. Sebastian say the diocese “violated their rights” under canon law, the Catholic Church’s administrative code.
After consulting multiple canon lawyers, parishioners say they have learned that not only is the Toledo diocese violating their right to maintain the church as a chapel at their own expense, the diocese also ignored for more than a decade their right to freely pray in the church by locking them out for more than a dozen years.
They also learned the church was guaranteed a minimum of two Masses per year by canon law that were never celebrated between 2005 and 2017. According to the letter, no diocese official ever informed parishioners they had these rights.
“Parishioners feel they have been railroaded in this process by the Toledo diocese,” the letter stated.
Most recent communication from the diocese is that the church will be razed Feb. 18.
On Tuesday, the parishioners and their supporters vowed to show their support by meeting in protest at the Toledo diocese. They will ask for an audience with Bishop Daniel Thomas — a request that has been ignored thus far.
The Rev. Jacob V. Gordon, pastor of St. Gaspar del Bufalo Parish of Bellevue, told parishioners after they received Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas’s decree of relegation to profane but not sordid use on Nov. 27 that a church had to be relegated in order for its future purchase by the parishioners to be possible.
This action means the church would be taken “from a sacred place to just a building,” according to Angela Phillips, whose father and family were parishioners of this church.
Parishioners say they now know though this is not true.
Lied to and ignored
Gordon, who also is responsible for St. Sebastian’s as well as Assumption of Mary in Reed and both Our Lady of Hope and Chapel of St. Stephens of Attica, never revealed canon law clearly states lay people can purchase a church building they intend to retain for Catholic worship, which was the desire of the parishioners.
According to parishioners, Gordon also never explained that relegation prevents a church from ever being used again for worship and leaves it subject to demolition. Parishioners say they learned that the purpose of relegating St. Sebastian Church and Assumption of Mary Church in Reed Township was simply to make it easier for the diocese to dispose of them.
“It’s a travesty what is happening in the Toledo diocese,” said Phillips. “Catholics in the Toledo area need to wake up as their church could be next. It appears that the diocese railroaded this decision, and I am committed to using all means at my disposal, including the Vatican, to save this 160 year old church.”
Phillips said she plans for the protest to be a peaceful one, adding she wasn’t sure of the number that would be joining her.
“People who went there previously as parishioners are joining me Tuesday to show our belief as parishioners and as family of loved ones buried there, letting the Diocese know we think it needs to stay,” she said.
“There will be picketers with signs on the sidewalk. It will be peaceful, done in respect. For these people in the rural areas, it’s hard to get people to notice them. ... We want the diocese to pay attention to what we’re doing. This is a very faithful community of Catholics here.”
Phillips sought to purchase St. Sebastian’s Church from the diocese and maintain it as a chapel at her own expense. In spite of canon law giving her this right, and her statement of her interest in doing this in 2016, Thomas rejected her offer of $300,000.
She said the church is “perfectly fine” except for a “small repair” needed that would cost about $80,000, a fee Phillips and the parishioners are willing to pay. She added that the parish’s bills were being paid and was “doing well financially,” however, she said she found the Diocese no longer wanted to fund a clergyman for the location.
“(The law says) you’re supposed to find any possible way for a sacred building to exist and the diocese is doing the opposite,” she said. “They expect them just to go to this other church and the main reason they want to force the parishioners to go to this other church is to support it financially. That’s hard after these people have been lied to. They’ve been lied to by the diocese and the families feel they can’t trust them. They just want them to (move). That’s not how this works.”
“Why is Bishop Thomas rejecting a significant sum of money and choosing instead to spend the diocese’s money to tear the church down?” Phillips asked.
Phillips and the parishioners of St. Sebastian pray the Diocese of Toledo immediately begins respecting their canonical rights, and they seek a meeting to resolve this situation.
A Dec. 26, 2017 letter from Thomas to Gordon provided the diocese’s reasons for the decision.
“Sadly, as many individuals chose to move away or no longer exercise their Catholic faith, it was necessary to merge parishes in your area and throughout the diocese in 2005,” Thomas wrote.
“This was undertaken in an effort to keep Catholic communities viable for the future generations and to help the faithful once again to realize that the parish is first and foremost in a community of authentic Christians, persons who are in every sense of the word ‘eucharistic’: filled with charity, forgiving, loving neighbors, patiently suffering.”
As for the offer of parishioners to use their own funds to restore worship at St. Sebastian, Thomas wrote:
“Some individuals have indicated that they are now willing to contribute to the retention, repair and perpetual care of these closed buildings. This, however, should cause us to pause and consider the current realities of Saint Gaspar Parish. With due respect for those who may have offered the abovementioned funding, it is deeply concerning that similar support does not appear to be present for the active parish, the location where the church regularly celebrates the Sacraments and sacred rites — those celebrations that go beyond the buildings and truly make us the church present in the community.”
St. Sebastian’s Church was originally organized in 1846, when a small log building was erected. The present church was opened Aug. 5, 1857.
Several groups have joined with the Bismark association in an effort to save St. Sebastian, including Rick Reed from the Willard Ohio Genealogy Group, the same organization that is behind the “Save the Willard Clock” venture. Research by that group says the church — one that served 135 families over the years — was built by German immigrants as the area is of German descent.