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'We have been betrayed by the diocese'

By DON HOHLER • Updated Feb 27, 2018 at 9:39 AM

BISMARK — A look inside St. Sebastian’s Church makes it obvious that the Catholic Church’s Toledo diocese is winning the 12-year-old battle to raze the 170-year-old structure.

Many, however, think differently, including the 100 who showed up Thursday afternoon for a Toledo Blade picture shot by guild photographer Jeremy Wadsworth.

“Attorneys are carefully working through the legal process in guiding our appeal toward Rome,” parishioner Deb Bumb said. “We have Canon Law on our side if Bishop (Daniel) Thomas adheres to the clause that orders him to make no decision until all appeals are heard. We are basing our stand on the fact that we were not advised of the relegation back in December. Had we known, we would have contested the razing much earlier than what we did. Letters to this effect have been sent to both the diocesan office and Rome.

“We have been betrayed by the diocese,” she said. “There is absolutely no reason this church should be torn down. In 2005 the reason given was shortage of priests. Now they say it is a financial problem. The latter could not be further from the truth. We were operating in the black. And we have a benefactor in the late Ralph Phillips and now his daughter, Angela, who not only bought the school and the house across the road from the church and deeded it back to us, but also offered the buy the church outright or pay for any remodeling that needed done. Toledo would have no part of it. 

“All we want from Toledo is the truth. I can’t handle lies, especially from the diocese.”

The parishioners at St. Sebastian’s were told by the Rev. Jacob Gordon, the pastor of St. Gasper del Buffalo Church — the nearby church parishioners were asked to attend when the church closed in 2005, that their church had to be relegated (unblessing the church) in order for the bishop to donate it to Angela Phillips and the Phillips Foundation. Naturally, none of the parishioners voiced an opinion against the relegation because they knew the Phillips offer was genuine. When parishioners learned differently, they had but 10 days over the Christmas season, to appeal.”

Since then parishioners, including retired welder Joe Fritz, have taken upon themselves to strip the church completely. Pews were first to go, some of them sold. Thirteen were kept. Then the stained glass windows were removed and crated. Anything that was wood-stained was unscrewed or unbolted and that included the complete confessional and of all things, the ceiling. Wall paintings were carefully stripped. Even the woodwork that surrounded the choir loft was taken off. All was stored in a safe place.

“Just one family kept their named stained glass and I understand they will return it when the church is reblessed,” Bumb said. “No way could we take the chance of being blind-sided by the diocese a second time if they suddenly showed up with the wrecking ball. The only item we lost was the organ. That has a new home in a Columbus-area church that suffered fire damage three years ago.”

Bumb refuses to believe anything other than Rome will intervene and the church will be just that again, St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church. “God is in charge. God prevails,” she said.

Fritz, like many others, continues to attend Sunday Mass at St. Gasper.

“I was really troubled some time back when one of our long-time parishioners stopped and visited with us in the parking lot,” he said. “I told him I had not seen him around and he told me that since the church closed in 2005, he hasn’t been to church in years. He told me if the diocese has the power to take away the church he has attended for 60 years, he doesn’t need the church. And here is a man who attended school across the road.

“I am not leaving the church like many of our parishioners have. I still believe in the Catholic faith but I too am having a tough time,” Fritz said. “I can not believe that we can mean so little to the Toledo diocese. It is obvious that they do not care. I attend St. Gasper but just how long I will continue there depends on what I hear from the pulpit. And what I hear of late, tests my faith even more.”

Bumb can not speak highly enough of the Phillips family.

“The Phillips family paid $80,000 for the buildings across the road,” Bumb said. “After Ralph bought the school building and the house, he gave me his bid number and told me to buy all the contents needed to run the buildings and to make sure I bought the blackboards. It was an open checkbook to buy anything at auction I saw fit to buy with much of the contesting bids coming from St. Gasper bidders. I fairly purchased everything we needed to run the community center, a building that now includes a room full of artifacts of the church and school.”

It remains the hope of all that St. Sebastian’s will again be re-blessed as a church and if that is the case, everything will be brought out of storage and replaced, a two-week job according to Fritz, providing he has the six parishioners who helped him detach all the woodwork, railings, ceiling and the like.

If not a church again, perhaps a chapel. That would happen if Angela Phillips stepped in and bought the property. She offered $300,000, a sum that was previously turned down by Toledo. And that is a sticking point as far as Fritz is concerned.

“The diocese tells us it is the liability issue,” he said. “If he sold it to Angela, they would not have to worry about liability. We want to keep it if for no other reason than a landmark. If they won’t let us say Mass here, we will make a museum out of St. Sebastian’s and it will be completely restored, even to that last little window and those few sticks of woodwork one of the parishioners wanted.”

Is there any idea when a decision will come down?

“It’s just like the government,” Bumb said. “Time does not seem to be an issue. This has been going on since 2005.”

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