Parishioners at a Haddon Township church that has been targeted for closure had their spirits lifted yesterday by news that the bishop was asking an advisory group to reexamine the decision.
"It's a ray of hope," said Tricia Newman, a paraplegic woman from Haddon Township who is deeply attached to St. Vincent Pallotti, one of the few Catholic churches in the region fully accessible to the disabled.
In April, Camden Bishop Joseph A. Galante angered many of the Camden diocese's faithful when he proposed merging 124 parishes into 66, one of the largest reconfigurations of Roman Catholic churches in the country.
Galante has been picketed by a number of congregations and inundated with letters and calls. Thus far, the bishop has agreed only to revisit his decision to close St. Vincent Pallotti.
"I assure you I am striving for a thorough and expeditious review of this matter," Galante said in a letter that Msgr. Louis Marucci read to the parish at Masses yesterday.
Marucci, who uses a wheelchair because he has multiple sclerosis, said he was encouraged.
Galante had convened a committee in May to compare the church's accessibility features with those at other churches. Although he did not disclose those findings, Galante said in his letter he would send the report to the Presbyteral Council, a body of priests that had reviewed the parish closings, for a second look before issuing his final decision.
"I am encouraged that the bishop is taking this to another level," said Marucci. "It appears to me that if he is taking it back to the Presbyteral Council, that he would have to go to them with something different . . . that there is some change being made."
Andrew Walton, spokesman for Galante, said the bishop agreed to the review because he "wants to ensure that the needs of all parishioners, especially the needs of those with disabilities, are being met."
Under the reconfiguration, members of St. Vincent Pallotti Church would be asked to attend St. Aloysius Church in Oaklyn, 1.3 miles away. Unlike the Oaklyn church, which has five steps, St. Vincent's has no stairs. St. Vincent's - which is about twice as large, with seating for more than 700 - also has extra-wide aisles and other features that accommodate disabled people.
Even though St. Vincent's had support among a committee of priests and parishioners in the area, Walton said the bishop took a broader look and decided it would be better to close that church, partly because of parking issues.
Walton said the diocese didn't want "half-empty churches" and felt St. Aloysius would bring more of a sense of community.
The bishop did not indicate when he'd make a final decision but said the priests' council would begin studying the issue this month.
"Whether this is a complete reversal, or if the church stays open as a secondary worship site, or is designated as a site for the disabled, we just don't know," said Michael Gross, president of the nonprofit Friends of Vincent Pallotti Inc.
"But I think there were a few more smiles on people today as they were leaving church."
Eileen Devine, 54, of Audubon, says if the church were closed, her elderly mother wouldn't be able to attend Mass. "I have my fingers crossed," she said. "It's still up in the air."
Newman, 52, who became disabled in a car accident in 1992, said she was able to be an altar server and reader at St. Vincent's - opportunities she wouldn't get in a less-accessible church.
It's important for her 8-year-old son to see her doing more than sitting in a wheelchair, she said, and it's empowering for her and her son to see Marucci officiating at Mass.
Newman said she was praying for a reversal. "We're grateful that he is looking into it," she said.
Marucci said the rectory at St. Aloysius isn't accessible and he likely wouldn't be able to say Mass there.
"It was an illogical decision to close this church," he said. "Why would you close a church that already allows total access and inclusion and keep open a church that would have to be made compliant?"