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A fight to block parish merger

'Not backing down' to bishop's ruling.

Robert J. Walsh knows a bit about mergers. The management consultant previously worked at Mobil Oil in Fairfax, Va., where he dealt with consolidations.

Walsh, a button-down-shirt guy with graying hair and a cell phone affixed to his belt, lives in Pitman now and is a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace, a gray stone church built in 1940 atop a small hill.

The merger he's involved in these days is one he's trying to stop - one that would combine Queen of Peace with another parish as part of the Camden Diocese's consolidation plan.

"We're picketing, and we're appealing the decision," Walsh said. "We oppose this and are not backing down."

Normally deferential to church authority, Walsh and dozens of other South Jersey Catholics have become openly, and vigorously, rebellious in recent weeks. Their challenge to the Catholic hierarchy's decisions here mirrors recent efforts in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere.

"It's an existential struggle. We're fighting because we have no alternative," said Peter Borre, cochairman of the national Council of Parishes. The organization supports five Boston churches where parishioners are sleeping inside to prevent the archdiocese from padlocking the doors.

The local target is Camden Bishop Joseph A. Galante, who said in April he would cut the number of parishes from 124 to 66 and close 30 outright. The action, he said, was driven by a projected priest shortage, shifting demographics, and the need for more-vibrant churches.

After forming a local Council of Parishes, opponents of the diocese's plan are staging protests at the bishop's appearances and a letter-writing campaign. They are networking with the national council and learning strategies to stop the mergers.

Some local parishioners are even asking the Vatican to intervene, and others seek the bishop's recall.

"We as a people have been silent too long," said Walsh, 59. More Catholics are now willing to speak out, believing that blind obedience to the Catholic Church played a role in the child-abuse cases involving priests, he said.

Walsh, an avid reader of religious history books, is a longtime member of Our Lady Queen of Peace. Its bells chime hourly, but under the bishop's plan, the church will become a secondary worship site and a skeleton of itself, Walsh said. Instead of daily Masses, there may be only one a week.

Walsh has been requesting a meeting with the bishop to show him how Queen of Peace can be saved.

"I'd meet with him anytime, 24 hours a day, and will drive anywhere," said Walsh, whose two children were baptized in the church.

Our Lady of Lourdes, a much bigger and more modern church two miles away in Glassboro, is designated as the primary site for the two parishes. In time, the smaller church likely will be shuttered, Walsh said.

Frances Johnson, a writing professor at Rowan University and Queen of Peace parishioner, also rues the day that might happen.

"This church is our passion, our home, where we live spiritually. We'll keep fighting for it," Johnson said.

Last month, Johnson joined about 20 other protesters at St. Mary's Church in Malaga, another one whose existence is threatened. She and Walsh are cochairs of the Alternate Options Committee, which produced a 61-page document that was mailed to the bishop in September when the mergers were being discussed. The paper uses charts, analyses, suggestions, letters and emotional pleas to justify keeping Queen of Peace fully operational.

The parish is solvent, with $1 million in a savings account; it has a membership of 700 families that has not declined in 20 years; it has numerous outreach programs and activities; and it just finished paying about $200,000 for a new church roof and renovations, Walsh said.

Walsh says he's still waiting for a reply from the bishop.

Galante, 70, who makes decisions for an estimated half-million South Jersey Catholics, says his purpose is to strengthen the parishes. He says it is better to have churches that offer a panoply of activities rather than many scattered, smaller churches that offer less.

"We can't just look at our own little place; we have to look at the broader picture," he said. "This is not about how can I save my parish, but how can we best administer to all the people in our area."

Queen of Peace has seating for only about 250 people, while the Glassboro church has four times that capacity, plus large meeting halls and classroom areas, the bishop said. A church should offer youth programs and outreach, rather than just being "a cozy, comfortable scenario," he said.

Galante recognizes the Pitman parish is not losing members, like some parishes, but he faults it for not recruiting new members and for failing to hire a youth minister. These things could be accomplished by combining the parishes, he says.

Galante said that when he came to Camden from Texas a few years ago, he held numerous "Speak-Up" sessions throughout the diocese to gauge the interests and concerns of parishioners. He said he was concerned because he learned that only about a quarter of the Catholics regularly attend Mass.

"I want to bring them back to church," he said. The consolidation plan is designed to do this, by instilling new life in the parishes, he said.

"We need more ministry, more service and greater activity," he said.

Galante also disputed the assertion that he planned to close Queen of Peace.

"I said it will be a secondary worship site, and that was probably a poor choice of words," he said.

He said that liturgies will still be held at such sites and that it will be up to the priest overseeing the combined parishes to decide on a schedule.

As for the picketing, Galante said he understood that people are emotional because they don't want change and are attached to their churches.

"I don't mind people disagreeing with what I'm doing, but I would hope they would do it in a more Christian way," he said.

Walsh insists the protesters are being respectful but trying to get a point across.

"Not everyone wants to go to mega-churches," he said.

A devout Catholic who recently saw the pope in New York, Walsh said he feared his church would become a museum. Built decades ago, against opposition in a historically Methodist community, the church is still relevant, he says.

"It's a model church that is already doing everything that the bishop has said we should be doing," he said, shaking his head in disbelief that it could be threatened.

A member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Walsh is not new to protests. He said he picketed the White House in the 1980s for Irish unification.

As soon as Walsh heard that the shrinking numbers of clergy was a reason for the parish reconfiguration, he contacted priests in India who are approved by the Vatican to officiate Mass. He arranged for them to visit Queen of Peace last year, helped negotiate an agreement with them, and then tucked the details into the report for the bishop to approve.

Galante insists he gave Walsh a reply - verbally. "I spoke with Mr. Walsh personally at a meeting in September or October and talked to him at length," he said.

The bishop said he was already aware of these priests, but believes employing them is not the solution.

"This is not just a question of providing priests for Mass," he said.

Walsh said he was hoping the bishop would grant him an appointment to discuss the report and was surprised to hear that the bishop considered their four-minute impromptu conversation a reply. Walsh said it took place during an intermission at a church meeting.

Walsh and parishioners from several diocese churches are filing appeals with the pope. They are buoyed by news from other church activists in the country that at least one parish won a reversal of a closure.

Borre said that victory was in Chicago, but came too late - after the church had been bulldozed. New rules prevent such actions while appeals are pending, he said.

"That parish won their appeal just through persistence," Walsh said. "And that's what we have."