Katrina-hit parish sues bishop over rebuilding church

Katrina-hit parish sues bishop over rebuilding church

Speaking of closing parishes, they’re dealing with this on a massive scale on the Gulf Coast. A parish in Pass Christian, Mississippi, is suing the diocese because it won’t rebuild their church. But the implications are more wide-reaching, raising questions of the balance between clericalism and congregationalism.

Bishop Thomas Rodi of Biloxi, Mississippi, had decided to merge St. Paul Parish with Holy Family Parish after St. Paul’s—which was located on the beach—had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. About 150 parishioners have sued Rodi and the pastor of Holy Family, claiming that the property was deeded to the congregation, not the diocese, and that the diocese was only holding it in trust for the congregation.

This is not how the Church organizes parishes. Dioceses do not hold property in trust in that fashion and would not accept the sale or donation of property to the congregation itself and not the diocese. For one thing, the congregation does not exist independent of the diocese or bishop, that is a parish can only exist as part of a diocese or under the authority of a bishop.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs claims that the lawsuit is not about getting the parish rebuilt in the same location, but only about demanding an accounting for the assets of St. Paul’s. If that’s the case, then that’s their right under both civil law and canon law. Under canon law, a parish’s property belongs to it and cannot simply be appropriated by a bishop for his own use. He must account for it. If the parish is merged with another parish, then the closed parish’s property goes to the new parish. If a parish is suppressed, then it’s assets would go to the diocese, but they must follow proper procedure.

Bishop Rodi responded to the lawsuit with a public statement published in the diocesan newspaper and the local newspaper. In it he outlines the background of the situation, including the fact that there were originally three parishes in the town, one of them staffed by a religious order. But after the hurricane, the order decided to pull out of the parish. That left the diocese with a decision to consolidate the two parishes. At first they were going to maintain two locations, but then they changed their minds, saying that both financial and spiritual considerations led them to decide to rebuild only one.

The bottom line of the lawsuit is that it is an attempt to have the courts order the Catholic Church to have a church building at a specific place. If this lawsuit would be successful, it would mean, in effect, that the courts would tell the Catholic Church where God must be worshipped, where Mass and the other sacraments must be celebrated, and how the Catholic Church must use the financial resources of Holy Family Parish. This lawsuit attacks both the unity and liberty of the Church.

[…]

Any pastor desires to create unity in his parish and the pastor of Holy Family Parish reached the conclusion that having two churches would tend to have parishioners identify with one church building or the other rather than identify as one Holy Family Parish. One church building would also allow for a combining and strengthening of parish ministries, especially those associated with the celebration of the Eucharist, which have been weakened by the loss of so many parishioners. At present only about 700 individuals (not 700 families) attend Mass at Holy Family Parish.

[…]

This deeply saddens me since this lawsuit is not in keeping with our understanding of the fundamental nature of the Catholic Church. We are a church, not independent congregations. In faith, worship, and practice, we are in union with the successor of Saint Peter, the Pope. The Pope appoints the bishop of each diocese to serve as shepherd of the diocese. The bishop in turn appoints pastors to serve as shepherds for the parishes. The pastor is to minister for and with his parishioners. In making decisions affecting the good of the parish, he is to carefully consider the advice of the parishioners, especially his advisory committees, but the final decision is his as pastor.

I’m left with a couple of questions: The plaintiffs’ lawyer says they only want an accounting for the assets of the parish, while the bishop says that the lawsuit wants to tell the diocese where to build its churches. They can’t both be telling the truth. What does the lawsuit actually say?

Second, the tension between clericalism and congregationalism in the Church is one of the most contentious today, exacerbated by the Scandal and the perception of “a pray, pay, obey and ignore the pervert in the corner” mentality on the one hand and a “we are the church”, “it’s my parish”, “I don’t like that doctrine” mentality on the other. Finding the correct balance is one of the challenges we have to deal with.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
2 comments
  • From reading the AP article,  it looks like the congregation wants the Bishop to keep the money raised for the Church in a special account or something like that for the time when the new church is needed and built on the same property.  So basically they are saying that he has to build a new Church there with the money they raised.  But giving money to a parish does not hold any legal binding to it unless there was a specific written agreement to that and I would think that only the Bishop could sign such an agreement, not the pastor of the parish.  My thought is that maybe it isn’t a wise decision to build another church near the beach since another hurricane would damage it again –  beachfront property gets the biggest brunt of a hurricane especially wave damage.

  • For the record, the St. Paul’s was not destroyed during Katrina.  It was about the only building left standing in that area.  We lost our school, the gymnasium and the rectory, but the church made it.  It can be repaired with the insurance proceeds received and the money in our account at the diocesan office.  On November 25, 2005, Bishop Rodi granted us permission to repair our church and we committees were formed and an architect was hired.  On March 3, 2007, the pastor informed the congregation that he had decided not to repair St. Paul’s, that our church would be turned into a diocesan comuntiy center, that the parishioners have been assigned to a little mission church five miles away, that a new 13,000 square foot church would be built at a cost of $6,000,000, and that a new 3,000 square foot rectory would be built at a cost of at least $400,000.  To pay for the new church and rectory, St. Paul’s will ultimately be sold to a developer. 

      Fortunately, the deeds conveying the various properties making up St. Paul’s expressly states the property was conveyed to the Bishop “in trust for the benefit of the congregation of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Pass Christian, MS:.  Our lawsuit questions whether the bishop and the pastor have the right to unilaterally have the right to sell our property, when the sale in effect eliminates the beneficiary of the trust. Our lawsuit questions whether it is appropriate for the pastor to travel around the country asking for donations to repair St. Paul’s after the decision to close St. Paul’s had been made.  Our lawsuit questions whether the Diocese and the pastor can ignore the intent of the donor of a gift and use the money donated for whatever purpose suits them. 

    We are asking for an accounting, but it is not the only thing we are asking.  St. Paul’s is the only non-mission Catholic church in Pass Christian.  It has been on that same site for over 160 years.  If the church is closed, the entire city will suffer.  Is it right for the bishop to break his promise and suppress our church.

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