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Bridgeport parish opens for Episcopalians turning toward Catholicism

In 2012, the Vatican threw open the doors of the Roman Catholic Church to American Episcopalians wanting to jump ship from a Protestant denomination whose increasingly liberal leanings were not to their liking - but whose Anglican traditions they still treasured.

Father David Ousley stands in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church November 16, 2016.
Father David Ousley stands in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church November 16, 2016.Read more( MARGO REED / Staff Photographer)

In 2012, the Vatican threw open the doors of the Roman Catholic Church to American Episcopalians wanting to jump ship from a Protestant denomination whose increasingly liberal leanings were not to their liking - but whose Anglican traditions they still treasured.

Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, disaffected Episcopalians could have it both ways.

The then-pontiff conceived the "personal ordinariate," a dioceselike entity that retains the liturgy, prayers, and music of the Church of England - even allowing married priests - but is Roman Catholic in every other way.

Since then, the Vatican has created three ordinariates worldwide with nearly 100 parishes or communities and has ordained 140 priests, most of whom already were married.

One of the newest parishes in the fold is St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, the only such congregation in the Philadelphia region, New Jersey, or Delaware.

The 100-member parish has worshipped at its new home on Ford Street since last December. It was officially recognized as part of the ordinariate in a ceremony Nov. 18.

"The establishment of St. John the Baptist is an important moment in the life of our ordinariate . . . ," Bishop Steven J. Lopes said in a statement. "With a permanent location in Bridgeport, they will surely grow and invite many more people to know God through the reverence and beauty of our worship."

Bishop Lopes leads the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a Houston-based diocese encompassing 43 parishes in the United States and Canada where about 10,000 worship. The two others are the Personal Ordinariates of Our Lady of Walsingham in the United Kingdom (3,500 members) and Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia (2,000 members).

St. John the Baptist is the product of a merger of two breakaway churches: St. Michael the Archangel in Mount Airy and the Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Community in Wayne. Their members left the Episcopal Church USA because of disagreements on issues including biblical authority, sexual morality, and the denomination's approval of the ordination of women and gays.

"It was the right thing to do," said the Rev. David Ousley, St. John the Baptist's pastor. "Now we are in communion with 1.2 billion fellow Christians, but more significant, we have stability of teaching."

For years, Ousley and members of his Episcopal parish, the historic Church of St. James the Less in East Falls, had battled against liberal trends in the denomination. Finally in 1999, they disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church USA, setting off a long legal battle.


Six years later, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the parish could not secede and that the buildings, although owned by the parish, were held in trust for the local Episcopal diocese.

Ousley and his congregation of 60 left the building, changed their name to St. Michael the Archangel, and joined the Anglican Church in America. They worshipped in a chapel at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, and then at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mount Airy.

"It was difficult," said member Christine Jordan, of Princeton. "We didn't know where we were headed. We didn't know whether we would survive."

Ten miles away on the Main Line, the then-Rev. David Moyer and members of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont were embroiled in a similar theological battle.

In 2002, Moyer was stripped of his ministerial status after his repeated criticism of Bishop Charles Bennison and his liberal views, and also refusing to allow the then-leader of the Pennsylvania Diocese to visit and preach at Good Shepherd. With the support of his congregation, Moyer declined to step down and continued preaching and living in the church rectory, prompting extended, much-publicized litigation.

In August 2011, a judge ruled that the parish property belonged to the Episcopal diocese and the national denomination, and ordered him to vacate. A hundred congregants went with him, vowing to become Catholic. They took the name Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Community and met at a variety of locations.

Soon after, Pope Benedict created the ordinariate, yielding to pleas of frustrated Anglicans. Both breakaway congregations applied to join. St. Michael the Archangel was approved in 2012, and the married Ousley was ordained a Catholic priest.

Moyer and Blessed John Henry Newman hit a speed bump: The minister's petition to become a Catholic priest was turned down. He had received some of the approvals necessary, but not all.

"It was very painful," said Moyer, 65.

'Interesting people'

After he was rejected for ordination, half of the Blessed John Henry Newman congregation left to become Catholics on their own, he said. About 50 remained. Among them was Moyer, by then a layperson and a chauffeur for a limousine company.

"I meet interesting people," he said recently. "We talk about religion and spiritual things, so in God's loving way, I still have a ministry."

The congregation was accepted into the ordinariate under the leadership of Ousley, who divided his time between the two churches.

In the spring of 2015, St. Michael the Archangel and Blessed John Henry Newman began talking about a merger. They shopped for churches and found the Bridgeport property, formerly Our Lady of Mount Carmel, an Italian parish before it merged with the nearby Sacred Heart in 2014.

Ousley liked the small church building, the close-knit community, and its proximity to major highways for parishioners commuting from around the region. He declined to reveal the purchase price. Ordinariate churches must muster their own financial support. "We have very generous donors," he said.

St. John is now one of three Catholic churches in the one-square-mile borough of 4,500 and the adjacent community of Swedesburg: one Ukrainian, one archdiocesan, and one for former Episcopalians. The Rev. Timothy O'Sullivan, of the archdiocese's 1,230-family Sacred Heart parish, said he is excited about his new neighbor.

"Many people in our parish here, their fathers and grandfathers helped build that church," O'Sullivan said of St. John the Baptist Church. "So it's nice to see it being used for what it was built for."

After 10 years in the figurative wilderness, members are happy to settle down in a new faith that retains some of the ethos of the old one.

"We brought our music, our liturgy . . . ," Jordan said. "I miss seeing my friends [in the Episcopal church], but it feels great to have a permanent home. There's a sense of peace about it."