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Wrecking ball delayed as St. Sebastian supporters appeal to pope

• Updated Feb 19, 2018 at 6:35 PM

BISMARK — Former parishioners of St. Sebastian Church have appealed to the pope in their fight to save this 171-year-old building.

And at least for now, the wrecking ball has been delayed.

“The good news is that since there are current appeals in process with the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, it is required by Canon law 1732-39 to suspend all activity to demolish the church until a decision is reached,” said Chelsea Arndt, who is helping in the effort to save the church. “It is the supporters’ hope that Bishop Daniel Thomas will follow the requirements of canon law and suspend his decision to raze the building, pending appeal.”

Demolition was scheduled to begin on Sunday, but a busy week of activity by supporters led to the delay. Their goal, they said, is to prevent the church from being razed and to transfer the financial responsibility of its maintenance and care to a third party, allowing the building to be used as a chapel for events such as funerals and weddings.

The church was closed in 2005 by orders of Leonard P. Blair, the bishop overseeing the Catholic Church’s Toledo diocese at the time. It was part of a clustering the diocese’s program, which also resulted in the closing of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Reed Township — another church slated for demolition this year.

Parishioners of the two parishes were asked to attend a third area church, St. Gaspar on County Road 46 in Bellevue.

Last Tuesday, a protest at the diocese offices in Toledo was “well attended” and parishioners delivered a petition that had 776 signatures at the time, Arndt said.

As of Monday afternoon, signatures for the online petition had grown to 1,139. 

Here’s the description of the effort as stated on the website where people can add their signatures: “This petition is being initiated to show the support of the families whose loved ones are buried at St. Sebastian's cemetery, and those parishioners and others who live in the area of St. Sebastian's church and cemetery. We are petitioning the Most Reverend Bishop Daniel Thomas to reverse his decision on the Relegation of St. Sebastian's church and allow the sacred church to be designated as a chapel, with the understanding it will be supported by a third party and no longer burdensome on the parish of St. Gaspar del Bufalo.”

Still, some of the demolition work already has begun.

On Feb.12, the stained-glass windows were removed by Window Creations, LLC of Ottoville. If the supporters are successful in their efforts to save the church, they hope the windows can be restored and replaced.

On Wednesday, artwork on the ceiling and walls of St. Sebastian’s was being painstakingly removed by a local building contractor, Arndt said. The artwork predates the 1940 fire at the church.

On Thursday, several individuals who had appealed to the bishop for reconsideration of the closure of the church (known as Decree of Relegation) received a denial from Thomas, who was appointed to serve as bishop of the Toledo diocese in 2014.

These persons, who have lived in the parish or have been affiliated with St. Sebastian’s church, are appealing the bishop’s decision by taking their fight to Rome.

During the timeframe a decision by a bishop is being appealed, no further action can be taken to demolish the church building pending the outcome of the appeal, Arndt said. This is identified in the canons 1732-39, which Thomas identified in his response to the appellants denying their appeal.

On Friday, Archbishop Christophe Pierre — the ambassador of the Vatican, known as the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See — was contacted to ensure that Thomas adheres to the requirement that the demolition be delayed until the appeal runs its course, Arndt said.

On Saturday, a prayer vigil took place at the Bismark Senior and Community Center.

“It’s a travesty what is happening in the Toledo diocese,” Angela Phillips previously told the Reflector. “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, whose father Ralph and other family members were parishioners of this church, sought to purchase the church from the diocese and maintain it as a chapel at her own expense. In spite of canon law — the Catholic church’s administrative code — giving her this right, and her statement of her interest in doing this in 2016, Thomas rejected her offer of $300,000, she said.

She said the church is “perfectly fine” except for a “small repair” needed that would cost about $80,000 — a fee Phillips and other supporters are willing to pay. She added that the parish’s bills were being paid and it 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.”

A Dec. 26, 2017 letter from Thomas to the Rev. Jacob V. Gordon, pastor of the St. Gaspar parish, 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.

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.”

Phillips shared in an email this response received from diocese attorney Thomas Antonini: “For reasons expressed in recent correspondence with Saint Gaspar Parish, of which your client is aware, and understanding the responsibility the parish will continue to have both for the perpetual care of the adjacent cemetery on the parcel of land and to the families of those loved ones who are buried there, retaining the ownership of the entire parcel is believed to be in the best interest of the Church and the Faithful who are members of Saint Gaspar Parish. We, therefore, respectfully decline the offer as the property is not for sale.”

“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.

The late Ralph Phillips, the owner of Shelby Welded Tube and father of Angela Phillips, purchased the school and the houses across the road from St. Sebastian at auction for $80,000 and deeded it back to the parishioners and let them run it. The basement of the school is now used for occasional Sunday brunches.

“Mr. Phillips was a dear friend,” Deb Bumb, president of the Bismark Senior Community Center, previously told the Reflector. “He even offered to buy the church for an additional $200,000 but the diocese turned him down. Since then we have retained lawyers and tried everything to save the church. We have exhausted everything.”

Bumb cited a letter from Angela Phillips stating she would “cover the renovation, complete restoration, as well as set aside an endowment fund if that would help save the building.”

“She went even further stating that she would match any funds from the parishioners given toward restoration of the building.” Bumb added.

“No one could understand the reasoning of the bishop,” Bumb said. “It is sad that any church closes but St. Sebastian could hold just as many people with use of our choir loft as any of the others plus we had restrooms inside as well as a paved parking lot. Our goal, since its closing, is to maintain the church with the hope that the diocese would allow it to stand, transforming it into a cemetery chapel, utilizing it for funerals.”

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