MONONGAHELA – St. Anthony Church in Monongahela will close its doors April 28, concluding its 110-year tenure as a Roman Catholic worship site.
Faced with dwindling finances, a priest shortage and a drop in church attendance, Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik announced Saturday inside St. Anthony that only one Catholic church could survive in Monongahela.
The current Transfiguration Church, located on Main Street, will remain open and be rechristened as St. Damien of Molokai, reflecting the name given in 2011 when the two churches merged under the umbrella of one parish.
Since then, Zubik said “the parish has become so fractured that a number of people were unable to behave charitably toward each other, your pastor and quite honestly, toward me, your bishop.”
No definitive explanation was given for the splintered parish, but some said the lack of consensus over customs and traditions stemmed from old ethnic tensions. Transfiguration was organized by Irish immigrants, and St. Anthony was founded by Italian-Americans.
However, the fact remained St. Damien of Molokai Parish saw a steady decline in parishioners and financial support. Zubik said 885 parishioners attended Mass in October 2011, compared to 690 in October 2013. The parish collected $395,477 from parishioners in the 2012-13 fiscal year, which Zubik said “isn’t nearly enough money” to cover expenses for two churches, two rectories and two school buildings.
Masses at St. Anthony were temporarily canceled in 2012 and only restored after the congregation staged protests. Pastoral and finance councils could not reach a consensus on the future of the church buildings, so they asked Zubik to make the final call.
Zubik sent a questionnaire to parishioners to help him reach a decision, and he received more than 400 replies – the overwhelming majority arguing that at least one church should remain open.
“I relied heavily on people’s letters … and I read every one of them,” Zubik said. “And I think that they were saying, ‘Come on, we need to move on. We need to be a church.’”
Zubik read direct quotes from the letters, and many cited the need for a church, regardless of its location and history. “I will go to any building, even a fire hall,” read one comment.
Yet many members of the St. Anthony congregation were dismayed by the news. A sense of sadness pervaded the church, but few people were willing to describe those feelings to a reporter. Angelo Ripepi, chairman of the Society for the Preservation of St. Anthony’s, said he was at a loss for words and declined to comment.
Other members of that group said they agreed not to speak with media for fear of jeopardizing their efforts. One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she likely will not attend services at the present Transfiguration worship site.
“You’re going to find a lot of people that are totally devastated,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “We’ve had people who have come here their whole lives, and they’re in their nineties.”
Other parishioners quietly accepted the news, acknowledging that both churches could have been shut down.
Julia Lusk said she was baptized and married inside St. Anthony, and her children were baptized there, too. Nostalgia aside, Lusk said St. Anthony is “just a building” and was relieved that at least one Catholic church will remain in Monongahela.
“I would prefer if we would have had St. Anthony (stay open), but you know what? This is just stone and brick,” Lusk said. “You need some place to worship. We might have ended up going to Charleroi or Donora.”
Zubik acknowledged it was a difficult decision to close St. Anthony, but he expressed optimism for the continuance of St. Damien of Molokai Parish.
“You have convinced me by your letters that you have the wherewithal to help St. Damien of Molokai Parish grow,” Zubik said to parishioners. “You have the desire to help that growth continue through prayer, through service and by striving to become one community of faith.”