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Diocese rejects woman's $300,000 offer to buy St. Sebastian, keep it as chapel

• Feb 12, 2018 at 7:38 AM

BISMARK — Former parishioners of St. Sebastian Church continue in their fight to save this 171-year-old building.

A protest is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday in front of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo offices at 1933 Spielbusch Ave., Toledo. Parishioners seek an audience with Bishop Daniel Thomas.

An online petition drive is asking Thomas to reverse his decision to raze the church and instead make it a chapel that will be supported by a third party, with no financial burden to local parishes or the diocese.

One local woman even offered $300,000 to purchase the property, promising to keep it as a place where people can practice the Catholic faith.

Her offer, however, was rejected. A diocese attorney cited “perpetual care of the adjacent cemetery” as a reason.

The bishop said it is “deeply concerning that similar support does not appear to be present for the active parish,’ St. Gaspar del Bufalo on County Road 46 in Bellevue.

Time is running out to save St. Sebastian.

The windows and artwork reportedly were to be removed today. The full demolition is scheduled for Sunday.

The church was closed in 2005 by orders of the bishop. It was part of a clustering program by the diocese — an order that also caused the closing of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Reed Township, which also is slated for demolition this year.

Parishioners of the two parishes were asked to attend a third area church, St. Gaspar.

“It’s a travesty what is happening in the Toledo diocese,” said Angela Phillips, whose father Ralph and other family members were parishioners of this church. “Catholics in the Toledo area need to wake up as their church could be next. It appears that the diocese railroaded this decision, and I am committed to using all means at my disposal, including the Vatican, to save this 160-year-old church.”

Angela Phillips sought to purchase St. Sebastian’s Church from the diocese and maintain it as a chapel at her own expense. In spite of canon law — the Catholic church’s administrative code — giving her this right, and her statement of her interest in doing this in 2016, Thomas rejected her offer of $300,000.

She said the church is “perfectly fine” except for a “small repair” needed that would cost about $80,000 — a fee Phillips and the parishioners are willing to pay. She added that the parish’s bills were being paid and it was “doing well financially.” However, she said she found the diocese no longer wanted to fund a clergyman for the location.

“(The law says) you’re supposed to find any possible way for a sacred building to exist and the diocese is doing the opposite,” she said. “They expect them just to go to this other church and the main reason they want to force the parishioners to go to this other church is to support it financially. That’s hard after these people have been lied to. They’ve been lied to by the diocese and the families feel they can’t trust them. They just want them to (move). That’s not how this works.”

A Dec. 26, 2017 letter from Thomas to the Rev. Jacob V. Gordon, pastor of the St. Gaspar parish, provided the diocese’s reasons for the decision.

“Sadly, as many individuals chose to move away or no longer exercise their Catholic faith, it was necessary to merge parishes in your area and throughout the diocese in 2005,” Thomas wrote.

As for the offer of parishioners to use their own funds to restore worship at St. Sebastian, Thomas wrote:

“Some individuals have indicated that they are now willing to contribute to the retention, repair and perpetual care of these closed buildings. This, however, should cause us to pause and consider the current realities of Saint Gaspar parish. With due respect for those who may have offered the abovementioned funding, it is deeply concerning that similar support does not appear to be present for the active parish, the location where the church regularly celebrates the sacraments and sacred rites — those celebrations that go beyond the buildings and truly make us the church present in the community.”

On Tuesday, the parishioners and their supporters vow to show their support by meeting in protest at the Toledo diocese. They will ask for an audience with the bishop — a request that has been ignored thus far.

 

Gordon, who also is responsible for St. Sebastian’s as well as Assumption of Mary in Reed and both Our Lady of Hope and Chapel of St. Stephens of Attica, reportedly never revealed canon law clearly states lay people can purchase a church building they intend to retain for Catholic worship, which was the desire of the parishioners.

According to parishioners, Gordon also never explained that relegation prevents a church from ever being used again for worship and leaves it subject to demolition.

Parishioners say they learned that the purpose of relegating St. Sebastian Church and Assumption of Mary Church in Reed Township was simply to make it easier for the diocese to dispose of them.

Phillips said she plans for the protest to be a peaceful one, adding she wasn’t sure of the number who would be joining her.

“People who went there previously as parishioners are joining me Tuesday to show our belief as parishioners and as family of loved ones buried there, letting the diocese know we think it needs to stay,” she said.

“There will be picketers with signs on the sidewalk. It will be peaceful, done in respect. For these people in the rural areas, it’s hard to get people to notice them. ... We want the diocese to pay attention to what we’re doing. This is a very faithful community of Catholics here.”

Phillips said her latest offer to purchase the church was rejected by Thomas on Thursday.

She shared in an email this response received from diocese attorney Thomas Antonini: “For reasons expressed in recent correspondence with Saint Gaspar Parish, of which your client is aware, and understanding the responsibility the parish will continue to have both for the perpetual care of the adjacent cemetery on the parcel of land and to the families of those loved ones who are buried there, retaining the ownership of the entire parcel is believed to be in the best interest of the Church and the Faithful who are members of Saint Gaspar Parish. We, therefore, respectfully decline the offer as the property is not for sale.”

“Why is Bishop Thomas rejecting a significant sum of money and choosing instead to spend the diocese’s money to tear the church down?” Phillips asked.

According to the website, the petition “is being initiated to show the support of the families whose loved ones are buried at St. Sebastian’s cemetery, and those parishioners and others who live in the area of St. Sebastian’s church and cemetery. We are petitioning the Most Reverend Bishop Daniel Thomas to reverse his decision on the relegation of St. Sebastian’s church and allow the sacred church to be designated as a chapel, with the understanding it will be supported by a third party and no longer burdensome on the parish of St. Gaspar del Bufalo.”

The goal is to obtain 1,000 signatures. As of 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the petition had generated more than 430 signatures. 

“We are working several ways to delay the demolition, working with trustees, Huron County and others,” Phillips said in an email sent to former parishioners and supporters.

In a letter submitted to the Norwalk Reflector on Friday, former parishioners of St. Sebastian say the diocese “violated their rights” under canon law.

After consulting multiple canon lawyers, parishioners say they have learned that not only is the Toledo diocese violating their right to maintain the church as a chapel at their own expense, the diocese also ignored for more than a decade their right to freely pray in the church by locking them out for more than a dozen years.

They also learned the church was guaranteed a minimum of two Masses per year by canon law that were never celebrated between 2005 and 2017. According to the letter, no diocese official ever informed parishioners they had these rights.

“Parishioners feel they have been railroaded in this process by the Toledo diocese,” the letter stated.

Most recent communication from the diocese is that the church will be razed Feb. 18, which is Sunday.

The late Ralph Phillips, the owner of Shelby Welded Tube and father of Angela Phillips, purchased the school and the houses across the road from St. Sebastian at auction for $80,000 and deeded it back to the parishioners and let them run it. The basement of the school is now used for occasional Sunday brunches.

“Mr. Phillips was a dear friend,” Deb Bumb, president of the Bismark Senior Community Center, previously told the Reflector. “He even offered to buy the church for an additional $200,000 but the diocese turned him down. Since then we have retained lawyers and tried everything to save the church. We have exhausted everything.”

Bumb cited a letter from Angela Phillips stating she would “cover the renovation, complete restoration, as well as set aside an endowment fund if that would help save the building.”

“She went even further stating that she would match any funds from the parishioners given toward restoration of the building.” Bumb added.

“No one could understand the reasoning of the bishop,” Bumb said. “It is sad that any church closes but St. Sebastian could hold just as many people with use of our choir loft as any of the others plus we had restrooms inside as well as a paved parking lot. Our goal, since its closing, is to maintain the church with the hope that the diocese would allow it to stand, transforming it into a cemetery chapel, utilizing it for funerals.”

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