Michael O'Malley, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Defying the authority of their bishop, parishioners and their priest from the closed St. Peter Catholic Church in downtown Cleveland celebrated Mass Sunday in leased commercial space they transformed into a church independent of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.
The move by the new Community of St. Peter puts members in danger of excommunication because they had been warned by Bishop Richard Lennon, who shuttered St. Peter's in April, not to hold worship services in places without his approval..
"This feels real good," said parishioner Bob Kloos of Cleveland Heights...
"I feel wonderful at this moment," said parishioner Suzanne Joseph of Shaker Heights. "It's a little scary. We're kind of going into a new way of being within the Catholic church, but I'm very happy we're on this journey."
Joining the journey were a few Catholics from other closed churches. "This is a historical moment," said John Juhasz of the closed St. Emeric. "These people are setting an example for many others to follow. This is truly amazing..."
The group's annual budget for rent, staff and a reserve fund is about $200,000. So far, about 325 people out of 700 parishioners at the old church have made the switch to the Community of St. Peter..
When the bishop caught wind of a possible schism forming, he questioned Marrone and St. Peter's congregation leaders.
They told Lennon that the non-profit corporation was set up as a means to raise money to continue their social service and education programs after their church closed. The leased commercial space, they said, was for social gatherings to keep the congregation together. They did not tell the bishop they were setting up a church because at the time the community was still exploring the idea and had not made a decision...
Still, the bishop sent letters at the end of March of this year to each member of St. Peter's, suggesting their salvation was in jeopardy if they conducted worship services outside of a sanctioned church.
"Please know that I will not approve of a priest celebrating the sacraments in any space other than an approved site within the diocese," the bishop wrote, adding that he was concerned "for you and your salvation."
"It is my hope and my prayer," he continued, "that there is no attempt on the part of some to set up an alternative parish outside the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Cleveland.
"When there is a breaking of unity and communion with the church, there are consequences which affect one's relationship with the Lord. . . ."
But much of the flock was vexed with two gnawing questions:
Will [Father] Marrone come with us?
Are we willing to be excommunicated from the Catholic church for breaking off from the diocese in disobedience to the bishop?..
"I see this as an act of disobedience, not a schism," Marrone said in an interview before the new space was opened. "But I suspect we'll get accused of schism."
"The closing of St. Peter's was not legitimate. Our rights were violated. We made it clear to the bishop we don't think this is right. You just can't do this to people..."
Parishioner Norbert Koehn of South Euclid, a sculptor who designed and built the new altar and baptismal font, said he didn't expect the bishop to retaliate or push for excommunications.
"This is a new beginning, a new start," he said. "It has nothing to do with the bishop any more.
"Yes, there could be excommunication, but I don't think that once you've been baptized it can be taken away from you by anybody..."