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At Philly Catholic churches, secret renovations expose rift between traditional and Neo-Catechumenal members

“He took a classically beautiful building and vandalized it,” architectural historian Oscar Beisert said. “I call it architectural vandalism.”

A parishioner enters St. Michael Roman Catholic Church on Sunday. The Rev. Arturo Chagala made major changes to church's interior — ripping out wooden pews and altar rails and covering the marble floors in bright red carpeting — without consulting parishioners or the Archdiocese.
A parishioner enters St. Michael Roman Catholic Church on Sunday. The Rev. Arturo Chagala made major changes to church's interior — ripping out wooden pews and altar rails and covering the marble floors in bright red carpeting — without consulting parishioners or the Archdiocese.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

For the last 12 years, Donna Panno, who leads the singing for Sunday Mass at St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in North Philadelphia, sat in the first pew. It was the same pew in which her mother, now 91, fainted as a 6-year-old from a fever.

But while St. Michael was closed because of the pandemic between March and early June, that pew, along with many others, was ripped from the historic church’s hardwood floors, the altar rails removed. The center-aisle marble floor — down which members and their parents before them had marched to be married — as well as the hardwood floors beneath the remaining pews were covered in bright red carpeting.

It all happened under the direction of the Rev. Arturo Chagala, who, since 2014 has led both the traditional Catholic congregation at the church, at Second and Jefferson Streets, as well as the members of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, an evangelical ministry that’s been acknowledged by the Vatican since 2008 and that at St. Michael comprises about 10% of the almost 250 parishioners.

Word spread as photos were shared on Facebook.

“When I showed my mom the pictures,” said Panno, a hospital surgical coordinator who lives in Bucks County, “she said to me, ‘You get my wheelchair and you get me down to that church. I’m going to let him have it.‘ ”

» READ MORE: Black members of St. Charles Borromeo Church in South Philly allege racism and will protest to declare their ‘parish lives matter’

The uproar marked the second instance this summer where members of a Catholic parish have publicly condemned a Neo-Catechumenal Way leader for major overhauls of their sanctuaries without their input, exposing a growing rift between longtime parishioners and Neo-Catechumenal members.

At St. Charles Borromeo in South Philadelphia, parishioners have taken to public protests, alleging that the Rev. Esteban Granyak made renovations to the chapel without consulting its longtime, predominantly Black, parishioners. Among other changes, he converted the basement gym into a separate worship space for Neo-Catechumenal followers, even though its longtime members used it to gather for repasts after funerals. Also, the marble altar railings used when kneeling for prayer or Communion were removed.

Granyak did not return calls for comment, and neither did Chagala, the parochial administrator for St. Michael.

In a June 20 letter to the St. Michael parish, Chagala conceded he had made renovations “without a broad consultation with parishioners” or permission from the archdiocese. Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez “was frank and clear about his deep concerns with regard to these renovations and directed a pathway to move forward,” Chagala wrote in the letter, which he read aloud at a Sunday service and now is posted on the church website.

He promised that “some aspects of the interior” of the church would be restored “as much as possible.” Parishioners were told that would happen by Sept. 11, but many have doubts, as changes have yet to be made, said Stuart Brian, the church’s former organist. (Brian retired after Chagala sent him a May 28 email that when the church reopened in June, his services would no longer be needed on a regular basis.)

“I apologize for all of the upset,” Chagala concluded in the letter. “I am hopeful that, together with all of you, we can move forward from this moment….”

A recent meeting between Granyak and parishioners at St. Charles was postponed after concerns he had been exposed to COVID-19, according to Kenneth Gavin, an archdiocesan spokesperson.

‘Architectural vandalism’

Architectural historian Oscar Beisert said his “blood boiled” when he saw pictures of the remodeled St. Michael sanctuary. Although its historic designation by the city only protects a building’s exterior, he called the changes a travesty.

“He took a classically beautiful building and vandalized it,” he said. “I call it architectural vandalism.”

An archdiocesan spokesperson wrote in an email that “it is believed that everything removed from the sanctuary of Saint Michael’s Church is still on the property,” and Pérez is considering next steps for both St. Michael and St. Charles.

“Reverend Arturo Chagala’s letter to the Saint Michael Parish community is accurate,” the spokesperson wrote. “Archbishop Pérez delegated a liturgical expert to visit each church [St. Michael’s and St. Charles Borromeo] and report back to him on what the renovations entailed.”

Who are the Neo-Catechumens?

Also known as “the Way,” “NCW, " or the “Neo-Cats,” the Neo-Catechumenal Way began in Spain in 1964 and was approved by the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI as a return to the traditions of the early church and to resist the secularization of society. Followers often worship in small groups, and commit to sharing the Catholic faith.

“They have become one of the most vital and biggest and most interesting new Catholic movements,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University.

» READ MORE: An evangelical Catholic movement inspires commitment, stirs controversy

The communities are usually invited to parishes with declining memberships, and followers are mostly lay missionary families, “who tend to have many children and they tend to move to other countries to serve in a missionary endeavor,” he said.

In 2014, then-Archbishop Charles J. Chaput invited two missionary families to live at St. Michael and at St. Charles. There are Neo-Catechumenal communities in about 15 parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a spokesperson said, with 20 to 25 lay leaders each. Some parishes have more than one community.

Yet the Way has become controversial, and adherents have clashed with more traditional bishops and parishes around the world, said Faggioli, author of two books discussing the movement.

“Their style is quite assertive and aggressive in relations with local churches,” he said, adding that members of the Way usually worship apart from the traditional parish.

“Those [Neo-Catechumenal] liturgies tend to not be opened to other Catholics, which is, theologically, very problematic,” Faggioli said. “If there’s an opportunity to take over a local church and parish, [they think], ‘We are going to do it, and we are going to do it without any doubt. It will be done.‘ ”

At the same time, Faggioli said, the Vatican supports Neo-Catechumenals because without them, the Catholic Church would see even sharper declines in attendance.

Gavin, the archdiocesan spokesperson, responded: “Any claim regarding ‘the Way’ taking over a parish is baseless. The Catholic Church embraces and celebrates diversity while maintaining focus on what unites us as a family of hope and faith — the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Further, Gavin said, parishioners who are not part of the Way are welcomed to attend their Saturday evening celebrations:

“The Neo-Catechumenal Way is a distinct charism within the Roman Catholic Church that is sanctioned by the Vatican,” Gavin wrote in an email. “Its liturgical celebrations have some elements that are different from what parishioners would traditionally experience.”

Neo-Catechumenal followers have worshiped without controversy at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Holmesburg for more than 25 years. “We have no problems,” said Patricia Aberle, a longtime member.

“We respect them, but we don’t infringe. They do their thing. They do a wonderful job. They go into the community to meet with the people. They pray and read the Bible. They are like apostles. They go out and evangelize,” she said.

At St. Dominic, though, a pastor, the Rev. Edward T. Kearns, leads the parish. At St. Charles and St. Michael, parochial administrators trained in the Neo-Catechumenal Way lead the parishes.

Diane Benson, a St. Dominic member for 18 years, attended St. Michael as a child. She helped plan the school reunion last year, and was among those who alerted the archdiocese about the renovations. She said she won’t set foot in there again until it is restored to the church she remembers: “Everybody is heartbroken that this happened.”

When she saw the pictures, she said, “I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.”

A long family legacy

Panno’s ties to St. Michael span four generations: Her great-grandmother, an Irish immigrant, worshiped there in the late 1800s. Her mother baptized seven of her eight children at St. Michael. And before the pandemic, her mother was still attending church occasionally despite her bad knees.

For Panno, like others, the sanctuary held generations of family memories: of marriages, baptisms, confirmations and funerals. Now they’re seeing those memories discarded, literally, as some of the pews were piled up outside, exposed to the elements.

“They came in and tore the church apart,” Panno said. “How do you take a church that’s belonged to people whose families have been here 70, 80 years, and force me out?”