Promised restorations to an Olde Kensington church, which was altered during its coronavirus shutdown without the consent of its parishioners, will have to wait until the sale of another church to pay for them, an Archdiocese representative told church members Sunday.
The Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese, told parishioners of St. Michael Roman Catholic Church that its original plan to move artifacts from Immaculate Conception, which closed last year, to replace what their parochial administrator, the Rev. Arturo Chagala, removed, was cost prohibitive.
Instead, Gill said, the parish would first have to sell Immaculate Conception in Northern Liberties, and then move religious artifacts to St. Michael.
Donna Panno, whose family has been at St. Michael for four generations, said Gill made the five-minute announcement and left the church before the 9:30 Mass began.
“I walked out the door behind him and told him I have a 91-year-old mother who was baptized in the baptismal font in there,” said Panno, who told him the changes were “an abomination.”
"He said to me, ‘We’re working on getting it fixed.’ "
After the public outcry by St. Michael members over the unauthorized renovations -- they included removing pews and altar rails, and covering over the center-aisle marble floor with bright red carpeting -- the Archdiocese had Chagala read a letter of apology in June and promised to restore the sanctuary by Sept. 11.
But Sept. 11 came and went, and nothing had been changed.
Kenneth A. Gavin, a spokesman for the archdiocese, confirmed Gill visited St. Michael to give an update on plans “to return the St. Michael church building to its previous appearance.”
Since the changes, described by a building historian as “architectural vandalism,” Panno and Stuart Brian, the church’s retired organist, discovered more alterations at the church Sunday.
In the church hall, once called the Lower Church, which served as an alternate site for Mass, there is now a concrete grotto.
Chagala did not return calls seeking comment.
An ongoing dispute
The outcry over physical changes at St. Michael was one of two instances this summer where traditional Catholic parishioners disagreed with the Neo-Catechumenal Way parochial leaders installed there.
Rev. Chagala, at St. Michael, is trained as a Neo-Catechumenal leader, as is Rev. Esteban Granyak, the parochial administrator at St. Charles Borromeo in South Philadelphia.
The St. Charles parishioners took to public protests in July and August alleging racial discrimination after Granyak made renovations without consulting the predominantly Black traditional parishioners.
Congregants at both churches say the parochial administrators are more focused on growing their “Neo-Cat” movements, rather than on the spiritual needs of traditional parish members.
Also known as “The Way,” or “the NCW," the evangelical ministry was founded in Spain in 1964, but only approved by the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
There are Neo-Catechumenal communities in about 15 parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, with 20 to 25 lay leaders each. Some parishes have more than one community. Gavin said last month that the Archdiocese embraces and celebrates diversity.
Who should pay?
Gavin wrote in an email Wednesday that it is not possible for the parish to restore St. Michael "without jeopardizing its financial solvency. The Archdiocese does not have available funds to offset the costs.”
Because Immaculate Conception belongs to St. Michael’s parish, Gavin added: “Any decision regarding the future disposition of the Immaculate Conception church building would be at the discretion of Saint Michael Parish leadership.”
To Panno and others, that would mean putting control of the proceeds from the sale of Immaculate Conception back into the hands of the very administrator whose unauthorized changes now require money to reverse.
“That’s not making any sense,” Panno said.
“The wall is broken outside, and the main door needs painting. Some of the plaster on the ceilingwas coming down," Panno said. "But instead of fixing what needed to be fixed and doing repairs, he’s putting in red carpet and building a cement cave.”
“If Immaculate is sold, that money shouldn’t go to the restoration," Brian said. "It should support the future of St. Michael,” Brian said.