St. Paul Church suffers from divides
- Published: October 22, 2015
An abrupt firing at St. Paul Catholic Church last month has touched off anger and deepened unease among parishioners who believe that their once close-knit community is unraveling under the leadership of Father Anthony Geraci, St. Paul’s pastor since 2008.
There are a number of indicators that suggest trouble at a church poised to enter its 160th year. First is the firing itself, in which local police and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati played a role for reasons that remain unclear. The firing took place against the backdrop of notable turnover among parish staff and a loss of volunteers in the church in recent years, another index of turmoil. And the attrition of local congregants, according to sources close to the church, adds to the picture of a church community suffering from painful divides.
“For a congregation to be this unstable and stressed is, in my opinion, scandalous,” Deacon Paul Richardson, an ordained minister who has served at St. Paul for 39 years under five pastors, said in a recent interview.
Parishioners interviewed over the past two weeks expressed deep sorrow, frustration and anger over the state of their church. They also contended that upheaval in this local institution is not just a concern for church members alone.
“It’s a loss for the village,” said Kate Anderson Carrigan, who has been a member of the parish for 25 years. “St. Paul has a history of all these connections into the community. The village loses big time when those get disrupted.”
The route to resolution is unclear. Parishioners who have communicated their concerns to Father Geraci and the Archdiocese say that they feel profoundly unheard. A pastor is not a democratically elected leader. He is appointed by the Archdiocese for renewable six-year terms. There is no process for the removal of priests whom parishioners disagree with or dislike. So disaffected parishioners face a choice: continue working with the pastor, or seek out another church.
An abrupt firing
Springfield resident Gail Chambers served St. Paul as parish secretary for 23 years under the tenure of four pastors. Deacon Richardson said he knew her from her first day on the job.
“Gail was a blessing; she kept everything together,” he said. Villager Mike Triplett, a 25-year member of St. Paul, described her as “the central nervous system” of the church. Other local parishioners called her “beloved” and “cherished,” and spoke highly of her competence and compassion.
But on Monday, Sept. 14, Chambers was terminated. In a letter published in the Oct. 1 issue of the News, she said Father Geraci did not give her a reason for the termination, despite her repeated requests for one, nor had he given her a performance evaluation during his seven years as pastor. In the same letter, she said she was legally pursuing severance.
Contacted for comment, Chambers said, “I’m considering my options.” She declined to elaborate.
Father Geraci declined to comment on the firing, as did two members of St. Paul’s Parish Pastoral Council, a lay body that advises the priest. A third member did not return the call.
At mass on Sunday, Oct. 4, Father Geraci referenced the matter briefly from the pulpit, saying that he and the Archdiocese chose to remain silent in response to letters in the News about the firing, and sought to keep “the spirit of charity.”
But police records shed light on the events around the termination.
Just after noon on Sept. 14, Yellow Springs police were summoned to St. Paul to play a “peace officer” role as Chambers, with the help of her husband, gathered her belongings and left the parish office. Responding officers Chief David Hale and Officer Tommy Sexton both said in recent interviews that the scene was orderly.
“We didn’t escort her,” said Chief Hale. “She left of her own accord.” Both officers said their presence on the scene was brief, under 10 minutes.
Police records, including an audio recording of the Sept. 14 call, reveal that it was the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, not the local church, that placed the call to Yellow Springs police. On the audio recording, the caller identifies himself as Rich Kelly, chief financial officer for the Archdiocese. The caller states, “I got a call from our priest at St. Paul Church in Yellow Springs, and he says an employee he just terminated is stealing files from his office. … He’s asking her to leave and to stop taking the property but he says she’s not cooperating.”
Contacted for comment, Kelly confirmed that he and other Archdiocese officials had spoken with Father Geraci by phone on Sept. 14 about the firing. But he denied making the phone call to Yellow Springs police.
“I am sure I did not make the call,” he said. Asked about the allegation of Chambers’ stealing church files, Kelly said he did not recall any such discussion.
The next day, Tuesday, Sept. 15, local police were again summoned to the church, this time by Chambers. Officer Sexton, the responding officer, said he stood by as Chambers, accompanied by a relative, gathered personal belongings and provided passwords to Father Geraci. The scene was calm, Officer Sexton said.
In the week following the firing, St. Paul hired off-duty retired police officer Dennis Nipper for private security detail at mass over the next two weekends, according to Nipper. He said he was present at Saturday and Sunday mass on Sept. 19 and 20, and Sunday mass on Sept. 27. (He was scheduled to be present at Saturday mass on Sept. 26, but was detained out-of-town.) Nipper said he was not in uniform, per police policy, and did not carry a weapon.
A pattern of turnover
Deacon Richardson said Chambers was the first parish staff member he could recall being fired in his four decades at the church. Yet the deacon and a handful of parishioners contended that Chambers’ termination fits a pattern of turnover and abrupt departures among parish staff during Father Geraci’s tenure.
Over the past seven years, according to multiple sources, St. Paul has lost two religious education supervisors, two choir directors, a longtime organist, two bookkeepers and one housekeeper, in addition to former parish secretary Chambers. One of the bookkeepers, hired in May of 2014, left shortly after Chambers’ firing last month. In a parish bulletin dated Oct. 4, the bookkeeper’s name is crossed out.
Several of the former employees were contacted for comment, but all either declined or did not return the call.
Certain staff members, such as the organist who had played at St. Paul for more than 60 years, had a deep history with the parish. Other staff had served for shorter periods and were less well known to parishioners.
The reasons for individual staff departures may vary, of course, and may not be fully known to friends and fellow church members. But in at least some of the instances, parish staff left because they felt pressured to do so, according to Deacon Richardson and several parishioners.
“More forced out than left” is how the deacon characterized a handful of key resignations. A source close to the church who wished to remain anonymous because of the fear of retribution concurred with that assessment.
In the case of the church organist, minutes from a June 2014 Parish Pastoral Council meeting, accessed online, state that the organist “had previously told Fr. Tony that she would step aside if the only way for the parish to get a choir director was to hire a person with joint director/organist responsibilities.” The same minutes record the hiring of a new choir director/organist.
The church has experienced recent losses beyond those of paid staff, said Deacon Richardson and others. The anonymous source pointed to “significant turnover” in St. Paul’s Parish Pastoral Council, one of two lay bodies mandated by Catholic canon law. Parish Pastoral Council members-at-large serve three-year terms and are elected by fellow parishioners, or appointed by the pastor if vacancies occur, according to Deacon Richardson. Over the past few years, an unusually high number of members have left before their terms are up, said the anonymous source.
There has also been some attrition in the parish’s Finance Council, said the same source. Finance Council is the other lay body mandated by canon law. Members do not serve defined terms.
Choir is another area where involvement seems to be declining. The Parish Pastoral Council meeting minutes from June 2014 include the statement, addressed to Council, that “the parish is close to losing its music ministry entirely if a sufficient number of parishioners do not come forward to join the choir.”
Enon resident Jolyn Verbillion, a church member for 25 years who left St. Paul two years ago, noted with regret the dwindling of the choir in which she had previously sung.
“We had a beautiful choir,” she said. “But everyone left.”
And St. Paul in recent years has had a harder time recruiting volunteers to clean the church, said several parishioners, a function whose backbone tends to be active longtime members — of which there are fewer these days, they said.
Turning away from the church
A handful of longtime parishioners, whose involvement at St. Paul ranges from 25 to 75 years, said in recent interviews that they no longer attend mass there. And they are not alone, they emphasized. Several parishioners described a decline in church attendance that is particularly pronounced among local members with deep ties to the church.
Deacon Richardson recalled an elderly parishioner who had returned to the church a few years ago after an absence due to illness.
“She said to me, ‘Paul, where is everyone? I don’t know anyone anymore,” he said.
According to the deacon, more than half of church members have stopped attending mass at St. Paul during the years that coincide with Father Geraci’s tenure. Some attend Catholic mass in other communities, such as St. Brigid in Xenia; others worship at non-Catholic denominations in the village. And others no longer attend church at all, he said, counting himself in that group. Deacon Richardson continues to preach at funerals and weddings for the church, and remains active in other ways, but he no longer worships at St. Paul. (His wife, Juanita, still attends mass there.) He relies instead, he said, on his private prayer life.
The anonymous source confirmed that around half of St. Paul’s registered families, numbering over 300, have stopped attending in recent years. A controversial homily in 2012, in which Father Geraci invoked Nazi Germany in connection with contraception provisions in federal healthcare reform, accelerated the decline “bigtime,” according to the same source.
Among parishioners interviewed in recent weeks, the reasons for leaving ranged from political differences to personality clashes to soured relationships, as well as a hard-to-define sense that something has shifted within the church they loved.
Triplett, a 25-year member, said he hasn’t returned to St. Paul after the homily incident. (Triplett was one of several parishioners who cried out in protest during mass.) “I’ve given up on the church,” he said. Triplett attends First Presbyterian now, and stays connected to his Catholic tradition through a “house church” that he and other former St. Paul congregants attend. Though the house church wasn’t created in response to his turn away from St. Paul — it has a deeper history — it has provided an alternative venue for worship.
Carrigan is also a part of that house church. After 25 years at St. Paul, including 10 co-leading youth ministry, she stopped attending mass last year. “It’s like a death in so many ways,” she said. Sharp political differences with Father Geraci (“I’m a social justice upstart,” she said) and an atmosphere she found divisive and “toxic” contributed to her decision to leave. “There’s acrimony everywhere,” she said.
Acrimony is part of what’s driving away villagers Sue and Dick Dillon, who have over 125 years of membership at St. Paul between them. “The church is splintering,” Sue said. “I don’t know how much longer it can survive.” The couple said they supported Father Geraci during the homily incident, but they’ve since been disillusioned by his leadership.
The St. Paul community was “wonderful,” said Sue. “It’s the people of the parish who have made things work.” But divisions and broken relationships over the past few years have made that synergy more difficult. The couple now attends mass elsewhere, and as of last month, Sue no longer serves on St. Paul’s bereavement committee.
“I’ve lost a lot of what’s important to me,” she said.
Verbillion said she cherished her many roles over 25 years at St. Paul, including cantor, choir member, youth group leader and Finance Council head. With first her sister and then father, she was also part of the “counting team” that counted collections at the church. Owing to “many things, not one thing,” she decided to leave the church. Many members she knew had already left, she said, and the church “didn’t feel like a peaceful, prayerful place anymore.”
Relative newcomer Pat Brown joined the church in 2008, when Father Geraci was just coming aboard, and left in 2012 after the homily incident and other disagreements over church teachings. She said she had volunteered as a Scripture teacher for adults, and continued teaching Scripture from her home in the village to students who were mostly from St. Paul. To Brown, the saddest aspect of the church’s troubles is the loss of parishioners.
“There are so many people who would love to come back,” she said.
Returning, or no return?
Most of the parishioners quoted above are still registered members of St. Paul. They may have left the church in some ways, but in one prominent way — in their formal allegiance — they remain within the fold.
“We haven’t taken our registration from St. Paul’s,” Sue Dillon said. “We’re just going to other [Catholic] churches and waiting for change.”
This is true of many members, according to Deacon Richardson. The anonymous source said that many registered families stay registered in the hope of returning once the church’s leadership and atmosphere change.
But will things change?
Deacon Richardson and most of the parishioners quoted above said they have shared past and present concerns with both Father Geraci and officials at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Some said they have received no response; others expressed dissatisfaction with the response they have received.
Bishop Joseph Binzer of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, who serves as head of priest personnel, niether confirmed nor denied receiving communications from St. Paul parishioners. Where divisions exist, “my hope would be healing and reconciliation,” he said.
Bishop Binzer noted that the church’s approach to handling grievances is rooted in Matthew 8:15–17. This Biblical passage encourages people to talk directly to those with whom they are having problems, then bring in witnesses and, finally, bring in the church if they feel they are not being heard. But the onus is on the hearer. The passage concludes: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Asked under what circumstances a priest might be removed from a parish, he replied that only violations of civil or criminal law could trigger such a step. A priest’s service is “not a vote of the people,” he said. “The Catholic Church doesn’t work that way.” He added, “A person may disagree with a [priest’s] decision, but the priest is on pretty firm ground.”
The Archdiocese has sole authority to appoint pastors, and pastors have ultimate authority within their parishes. The Parish Pastoral Council and Finance Council, as well as other committees that may exist within a given parish, are “advisory rather than determinative,” said Archdiocese spokesperson Dan Andriacco.
At the same time, parishes pay their priest’s salary and provide housing or a housing allowance. All buildings in the parish are owned by the parishioners; parishes seeking funds for building improvements do not even borrow from the Archdiocese, said Andriacco, but rather must secure a bank loan.
So parishes are curiously positioned, at least by contemporary democratic ways of thinking, with respect to the figure they are simultaneously governed by and materially support, yet have no formal input into “choosing” that leader — and no recourse when they dislike the choice.
Father Geraci was appointed by former Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk on July 1, 2008, for a priest’s customary six-year term. At the end of that term, he was reappointed by Archbishop Pilarczyk’s successor, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, for another six years, through July 1, 2020. Unless Father Geraci chooses to leave, that appointment is final.
In an additional twist, Father Geraci retired earlier this year, as is standard for priests 40 years past ordination, yet he continues to fill both administrative and sacramental duties at the church. (He is also pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in South Charleston, a smaller church, but St. Paul is his primary base.) As a retired priest, he receives retirement benefits from the Archdiocese, said Bishop Binzer, in lieu of a salary from the parish. But the parish does pay him what Bishop Binzer called a “stipend” for every mass performed, including weekday and weekend masses, funeral masses and wedding masses.
Against this picture, Deacon Richardson acknowledged that there’s not much more parishioners can do. “After the diocese, there’s nowhere else to go,” he said. The deacon said he’s voiced some of his concerns directly to Father Geraci, but “his response has been, ‘I’m not going to change.’” But “everything has to change,” Deacon Richardson said. “That’s just the nature of life.”
While Bishop Binzer said he hoped the process outlined in Matthew 8:15–17 and followed in the modern-day church resulted in “everyone’s faith being lifted up,” he also compared rifts within a church community to the painful divisions that can afflict family and work relationships. These don’t necessarily have easy resolutions, he acknowledged.
“But even if there’s no change, you continue working with the person,” he said.
CORRECTION: This article has been edited from the print to correctly identify Archbishop of Cincinnati Daniel Pilarczyk as the church official who originally appointed Father Anthony Geraci as priest of St. Paul Church.