Cleveland Parish Stares Down Austerity, Excommunication

As forced austerity continues to result in deeper cost cutting, as only the voiceless and vulnerable feel the pain of these cuts, and as protests against this injustice rise up from Greece to Chicago, one quiet community in Cleveland made front page news again today. The group raising their fist in the air against one of the the world's largest bureaucracies: The Community of St. Peter.

First, let's rewind a bit.

In March of 2009, Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon, spiritual and administrative leader of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese announced his plan to shrink the diocese by 52 churches. Twenty-nine churches were closed outright, the remainder merged with other parishes nearby. To Cleveland's 750,000 Catholics, the cuts were shocking. Eighteen of the shuttered churches were in Cleveland proper, and many more were in poor and ethnic communities.

Church communities who had grown up together over several generations were being scattered. Vibrant ethnic communities proudly living out the traditions of their varied homelands were told, essentially, it was finally time to assimilate. The region was rocked by the news.

The process of appealing this decision, an appeal that would need to be made to the Vatican, was incredibly daunting. More incredibly, several of the closed communities made such appeals and won.

One other parish, described in the Plain Dealer article first detailing the cuts as a "liberal-leaning downtown parish" that was "historical, financially solvent, growing and a provider of social services in a neighborhood of homeless people" was St. Peter Church.

The congregants of St. Peter took a third path. Rather than leave, rather than appeal, they simply decided to go on. They were told to close, they didn't. They were evicted, and so they scraped together enough money to move to an empty warehouse space on Cleveland's near east side. Known now as "The Community of St. Peter," they're still meeting today.

St. Peter's Church--and that's St. Peter, Jesus' headstrong disciple who would come to be known as the first pope--still practices a completely orthodox Catholic mass, but the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Cleveland don't see that way, and have deemed them an illegitimate breakaway.

The priest in charge at St. Peter, Rev. Robert J. Marrone, has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Members of the church have been warned that continuing to attend St. Peter would place their salvation in jeopardy. And this week, Sister Susan Clark, music director at St. Peter, was pressured by her superior Sister Margaret Gorman of the Sisters of Notre Dame (an order whose stated mission is to educate and care for the poor) to leave the parish. Likely facing excommunication from the greater church she has devoted her life to serving, Clark complied.

Remarkably, The Community of St. Peter soldiers on. They are committed to keeping up their humanitarian mission, and are active in the Greater Cleveland Congregations, an interfaith group dedicated to improving lives through advocacy in health care, food accessibility and criminal justice.

The tension between the parish and the diocese continues, recent talks between the two parties were fruitless, but the congregants' courage is remarkable. By continuing to live out their faith in this community, and with this mission of social justice, the parishioners at St. Peter are choosing to believe that Lennon is incorrect about their eternal damnation.

Christ commanded those who would follow him that they should feed the hungry and care for the poor. It would seem that The Community of St. Peter values those commands over the commands of a cost-cutting bureaucracy.

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