Members of shuttered Monongahela church sue diocese over closure
Five members of a Monongahela Catholic church that’s been shuttered since 2014 are seeking to block the potential sale of the building.The former St. Anthony parishioners - who live in Monongahela and Carroll and Fallowfield townships - claim in a lawsuit filed Jan. 17 in Washington County Court that they were “misled” by the diocese “to believe that if enough funding was raised that St. Anthony Church would remain open.”“The point that we’re making is - if anybody else does this, it’s fraud,” said Michael Hammond, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “We want the Catholic Church to be held to a standard of care of dealing with its parishioners in a fair way.“Ann Rodgers, director of communications for the diocese, said Monday diocesan leaders hadn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on the allegations.“We understand that people grieve when their (church) buildings close and that this is a hard thing for them to go through,” she said.Rodgers went on to note the closure has been the subject of four separate appeals starting at the diocesan level and winding up before the Vatican’s highest court.“They went through every single level that it’s possible to go through in the church, and at every single level the decision was upheld,” she said.Bishop David Zubik issued a decree in July 2011 merging the parishes of St. Anthony and Transfiguration, also in Monongahela, to form St. Damien of Molokai, giving the newly formed parish two years to decide on which church building it would use going forward.Parishioners couldn’t reach a consensus on which church should stay open and asked Zubik to decide for them.The bishop said in a March 2014 letter explaining his decision to close St. Anthony that the roughly $395,000 from offertory collections in 2012-13 wasn’t “nearly enough money to cover the expenses of a parish with two churches, two rectories and two school buildings, inclusive of high expenses for insurance, maintenance and security.“St. Damien holds services at the former Transfiguration building.Some St. Anthony members protested the closure at the church and at diocesan headquarters. They held a vigil, temporarily refusing to leave, after the final Mass April 27, 2014.The group involved in the lawsuit alleges the diocese closed St. Anthony because it has a higher potential sale value than the Transfiguration building and claims supporters of St. Anthony were excluded from meetings about possibly keeping that church open.The lawsuit names the diocese, Zubik and the Rev. Frederick Cain, regional vicar, as defendants. Along with fraud, it includes claims of breach of fididuciary duty, conversion and unjust enrichment. The plaintiffs also seek a preliminary injunction against the sale of the church building, pending the outcome of the case.Hammond said the plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to request a hearing on that request once the defendants have been served with the lawsuit.Rodgers said any sale would be a parish decision and referred questions to the Rev. William Terza of St. Damien.Terza said the building “is not on the market, you might say, but people have contacted us and we’re in the process of discussing it.” He declined to name any potential buyer.