Parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Montclair, New Jersey, say they were shocked last year when Newark Archbishop John Myers decreed that their parish should close and merge with one located a mile away. The parish was running a surplus, they said, and it consistently exceeded the fundraising goals given for the annual archdiocesan appeal. Its history dated to 1907, when Italian immigrants who felt unwanted at the nearby church started their own.
“It surprised all of us,” said Frank Cardell, who was the parish’s business manager and is now leader of the Committee to Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. There was no warning, he said, and pleas to Myers met with “deaf ears.”
Dozens of other congregations have mounted similar “save our parish” campaigns and, according to Sister Kate Kuenstler, an independent canon lawyer who has assisted hundreds of congregations in forty-eight dioceses over the past twelve years, it’s quite common for bishops to shut parishes that are financially solvent. Often, she says, their land is eventually sold, allowing a neighboring parish that receives the new congregation to pay off debts owed to the diocese.
Mass continues to be celebrated at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and, according to archdiocesan spokesman Jim Goodness, “for the forseeable future, the church is still going to be used as part of the parish.” But the Montclair committee is looking for a firm commitment that the church will remain and hopes that Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the new archbishop of Newark, “is looking at it with a new set of eyes,” Cardell said, adding, “I think he would be more liberal to our cause.”
The two archbishops have demonstrated differing styles of leadership. Myers, a hardliner on doctrine, battled with the news media over his handling of clergy sexual abuse and reports that he spent $500,000 to expand his future retirement home, which already had five bedrooms. (He said it didn’t cost the archdiocese anything because the money came from a donor who designated it for that purpose.) Tobin, former archbishop of Indianapolis, is very much in the mode of the man who appointed him, Pope Francis. He’s already become a national figure as an advocate of Francis’s call for a more merciful and less officious church.