Parish wonders if this Easter is its last

By Thomas J. Sheeran

Associated Press

CLEVELAND — The small group of mostly elderly worshippers, a polished floor creaking under their slow steps, was barely enough to fill two pews for a midweek Mass in a Roman Catholic church rich in the history of Hungarians who came to the United States for a better future or to flee communism.

Here at St. Emeric Church, drab on the outside but ornate and spotless inside, they practice their faith in the rhythms that make up a lifetime — baptisms, first communions, marriages, funerals — and all in Hungarian in a neighborhood where eastern Europeans who worked the steel mills have largely given way to Hispanics and blacks.

Heartbroken parishioners wonder if this will be the last Holy Week and Easter in a lily-decorated church they have known since childhood. St. Emeric was one of 52 parishes ordered closed or merged by Bishop Richard G. Lennon because debts are rising and the number of parishioners and priests are dropping.


"We’re praying, ’Thy will be done,’ but I keep on saying, ’Oh, please, God, in this instance hear us and please help,"’ said Ildiko Korossy, 66, a lifetime member of St. Emeric.

"We’re anticipating Christ’s Resurrection and then being faced with this," Korossy said after a midweek Hungarian-language Mass that attracted about 15 worshippers. "It’s hard because I don’t want to turn around and lose my faith but what the bishop is decreeing is something that will impact us all the time."

The bishop’s order, just weeks before Easter, included 20 parishes that cater to ethnic communities such as the Irish, Italians, Hungarians and Slovaks.

The pattern of closings has emerged across the country, sometimes leading to protest vigils and church occupations. The closings reflect population shifts as Catholics and other city residents move to the suburbs and, increasingly, to the country’s South and West.

The Cleveland Catholic population is one-third of its 1950 level, and the city’s overall population has dropped from about 914,000 to about 400,000. There have been similar dramatic shifts in other urban areas of the eight-county diocese of about 753,000 Catholics and 224 current parishes.

The diocese has 257 active priests, compared with 565 in 1970.

St. Emeric, founded in 1904, was burned out once and moved in 1925 to the current location between the busy West Side Market produce arcade, a public housing high-rise and a commuter rail line overlooking the downtown skyline. Most of the blue-collar neighborhood is made up of aging houses, small businesses, restaurants and bars.

The church interior is brightly adorned with statues and images of saints in Hungarian history. A ladies group has a sewing club in a former classroom and downstairs the kitchen and meeting hall host Hungarian-American celebrations and visiting VIPs from the homeland.


"I’m praying that it’s not going to be," Marika Megyimori, 62, said of the closing. She fled Hungary during the 1956 anti-communist revolution — a familiar story at St. Emeric and Cleveland’s two other Hungarian Catholic congregations.

Mindful of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday, Megyimori said, "We feel a different kind of pain, and that’s the pain of losing the faith community that we’ve been going to for years."

John Juhasz, 60, a 1952 Hungarian immigrant who was confirmed and married at St. Emeric, said he wasn’t ready to offer obedience to the bishop’s decision as God’s will.

"We welcome ’God’s will be done.’ What we fail to see is how God’s will is being done through this action by the diocese, which we do not believe is inspired by God’s will," he said.

Joseph Gyorky, 57, a lifelong St. Emeric member, had even stronger words: God’s will would be reflected in resistance to closing the church.

The Holy Week spirit of sacrifice "calls on the people of St. Emeric’s to do in all good faith what they believe is the right thing and to stand strong for their faith," he said. "Conceding to the will of a church authority is not necessarily conceding to God’s will."

It remains to be seen whether parishioners at St. Emeric or elsewhere will defy the bishop and try, as in some cases around the country, to keep churches open by occupying them around-the-clock. For now, about one dozen congregations have formally appealed Lennon’s shutdown orders and some of them have consulted experts on church law to pursue the matter.

If Lennon upholds his decisions, parishioners can appeal to the Vatican, but bishops have wide authority in running a diocese. Pastors, such as St. Emeric’s, the Rev. Sandor Siklodi, who declined an interview, are representatives of the bishop, so appeals have come from those in the pews.


Lennon told parishes two years ago to collaborate and recommend a course of action.

The Hungarian trio recommended keeping all three parishes open. Lennon picked St. Elizabeth of Hungary as centrally located and best situated for a combination that would lead to a viable church community.

"By coming together in a spirit of unity as one Hungarian people, a single parish would have the number of parishioners and resources to create a more vibrant parish with more vitality in worship, religious education, community outreach and other parish activities," Lennon said in a letter to pastors.

He said the parishes had failed to address the issue of consolidation. "I see that almost nothing was done to honestly look at possible ways in which the parishes could have come together to best serve the long-term pastoral needs of the Hungarian community."

Diocese spokesman Bob Tayek said the letters to pastors would serve as Lennon’s comment on the closings.

Members said St. Emeric is paying its bills, has a native-speaking pastor and active groups including Hungarian Boy Scouts and Hungarian language classes that draw from both the Catholic and non-Catholic Hungarian community.

Members said Sunday Mass attendance can range from 80 to 150, but the diocese said its annual head count showed an average of 65 with a single priest handling services. Another parish in the diocese has 14,000 members and three priests, a point Lennon made to underscore that decisions were made for the overall good of the diocese.

Doris Donnelly, a John Carroll University professor of religious studies, said parishioners should take hope from the Easter message of redemption, even amid the current uncertainty.


"I think the message of Holy Week and the message of these closings is that, yes there’s loss, yes there’s dislocation, yes there is, if you will, loss of the dream," she said. "But the message of Christianity is that there’s hope, that there’s life, that we will survive, that there’s life after death, after closure."

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