The last of the parishioners of St. Anthony Church in Monongahela walked out the door of their beloved worship site, perhaps for the last time, just before noon Sunday after holding a vigil that started with the close of 4 p.m. Mass Saturday.
About 30 parishioners refused to leave the building when the church was officially closed in a ceremony led by Father William Terza, pastor of St. Damien of Molokai parish. Monongahela police Chief Brian Tempest said the final three left the church about 11:50 a.m. Sunday.
St. Anthony’s on Park Avenue and Transfiguration on Main Street operated as separate churches for decades before merging into St. Damien of Molokai in 2011. Last month, Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Diocese announced St. Anthony would close effective April 28 while the site of Transfiguration would remain open and be rechristened St. Damien of Molokai. The process into the possible closing of a church in the city began about seven years ago.
Terza said Sunday he had heard there was going to be a vigil.
Father Ronald Lengwin, vicar general of the diocese, was not at the closing ceremony but came to Monongahela after learning of the vigil. He was there until about 12:30 a.m., hoping to convince those inside to leave the building.
Security guards were stationed at the doors to the church. Anyone who left would not be permitted to return.
Both Terza and Lengwin disputed reports that those remaining in the church Saturday night had no access to electricity and heat.
“As part of the ritual to close the church, the lights were turned off,” Terza said. “All they had to do to turn the lights back on was flip a switch.”
He said the heat was not on during the day because of warm temperatures. And Terza said water and restrooms were available.
Laura Magone was one of the parishioners who stayed inside the church overnight. She said the heat was set at 50 degrees. She also said the circuit breakers were turned off to cut power to all the lights inside the church. Magone also said security guards closed the doors to the sacristy, blocking access to the electric panel. Those attending the vigil also were not permitted to have food brought to them, nor were they allowed to open the windows.
“We held a prayer vigil because we were very unhappy the diocese moved to close St. Anthony’s,” Magone said. “We had folks tell us they never heard of such treatment and that it was barbaric and brutal.”
Magone said the parishioners should have been allowed access to the church until midnight Sunday, the official closing of the building.
Tempest said the vigil was peaceful.
“There was no way we were going to make anyone leave the church,” the chief said. “I touched base with Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone and decided we were not making any arrests.”
Magone said a group of parishioners appealed the decision to Zubik. Since the bishop is in Rome for the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII until later this week, they are not expecting a decision from him on the appeal by the deadline. If that happens, the group will appeal Zubik’s decision to the Vatican’s Congregation of Clergy.
Magone said those trying to keep St. Anthony open have been referred to as a small group of mean-spirited individuals.
“We are angry, not mean-spirited,” she countered. “We had no voice, no input into what was decided. Simply their agenda was to close the church and sell it.”
Magone said many former parishioners have moved to other parishes or simply stopped going to church.
Terza said most members of the parishioners are ready to move on as members of St. Damien of Molokai Parish.
No decision on selling the church building can be made until the appeals process is complete.