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A group of local Catholics battling Bishop Richard J. Malone over the future of an East Side church has found an unexpected ally – the Vatican.

St. Ann Church just six months ago was on track to be demolished.

But the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, in a recent ruling on an appeal by St. Ann parishioners, has made it clear that repairs of up to $12 million are not a good enough reason for the building to be demolished or converted into something other than a Catholic church.

“Rome is saying it should be a church,” said Ronald Bates, part of the group fighting to keep the church going. “We can’t throw it away. It’s craziness.”

The Vatican decision marked a rare and resounding win for Catholic lay people objecting to a bishop’s decision.

The ruling on St. Ann from the Congregation for Clergy potentially could have implications far beyond the Buffalo diocese, opening the door for Catholics across the country to contest church closings.

“All of the bishops of the United States are looking at this decree and probably needing to make new assessments of what to do,” said Sister Kate Kuenstler, a canon lawyer. “This is a thunderclap from the Vatican, and it affects all the bishops in the United States.”

The decision could clear the way for restoration to begin on the Gothic-style church, which was built in 1886 and needs significant masonry repairs.

Malone, who called for the razing of St. Ann back in August, now says he wants to preserve the building, too – just not as a Catholic church.

Diocesan officials said they plan to appeal the Vatican decision, so the diocese can find a buyer capable of repairing the building and keeping it as “a community asset.”

But parishioners said the best way to preserve the building is to keep it as a Catholic church, and they are thrilled by the Vatican ruling.

The decree also indicated that the parishioners, who have been trying for years to stave off closure of St. Ann, should be allowed to fix the building’s most serious structural problems.

“From the beginning, the people had the law and jurisprudence and divine law on their side. They have the high road here,” said Philip C.L. Gray, a canon lawyer from Hopedale, Ohio, who has been representing the St. Ann parishioners. “This is an outright decision that is very clear.”

Canon lawyers said the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, was unlikely to change the decision.

Willing donors

Kuenstler’s legal work helped re-open several closed churches in the Diocese of Cleveland in 2011.

In those instances, the Cleveland bishop hadn’t written the appropriate decrees to close the churches, as is required by canon law.

But in the case of St. Ann, the Congregation for the Clergy determined that Malone did not provide ample reason to turn the church into a secular building for the purposes of demolition.

Restoration costs of $8 million to $12 million do not amount to the “grave cause” necessary for a church to be relegated to secular status, according to the decree.

“When you have the faithful willing to fund a church, repair a church and use a church, it cannot be closed,” Gray said.

The decree appeared to support the parishioners’ contention that repairs to the building need not be done all at once.

“The bishop has taken the whole building and said, ‘To make this brand new, it’s going to cost up to $12 million,” said Gray. “But to fix the church, the International Chimney Corporation is saying $500,000 or $1 million tops.”

International Chimney Corp., which does masonry repair, provided estimates to the parishioner group.

“It’s not really legitimate for a bishop to say, ‘You have to do all or nothing,’ ” Gray said. “It’s really unreasonable, and it doesn’t speak to the spiritual care that’s going on there.”

The decree also mentioned that the parishioners have $2 million in pledges to allow for work to be done over 10 to 20 years, with the most important structural work “being done right away.”

Bates said the parishioner group has access to willing donors and recently established a nonprofit organization to accept gifts toward the restoration of St. Ann.

“There are people in and around St. Ann that are neither poor nor unwilling to put in money. St. Ann’s has roots way down,” said Bates.

But donors want some assurance that the building won’t be sold off or demolished before making their gifts, he added.

Canon law equates grave cause to a catastrophic physical demolition of a building, such as a direct hit by a tornado, Kuenstler said.

Once a church is consecrated “the intent is that go into perpetuity,” she said.

“It is not to be willy nilly deconsecrated,” Kuenstler said. “There has to be a grave reason. The bar is very high. And this decree clearly states that the bishop didn’t meet that bar.”

Challenging bishops

So why have hundreds, if not thousands, of Catholic churches, including several dozen in Western New York, been allowed to close during the past few decades?

Simply put, it’s because bishops were not challenged on their decisions, and if they were, the people making the challenges did not follow procedural requirements as spelled out in canon law.

“The people had no clue they could take recourse,” Kuenstler said. “Bishops were not telling them about it.”

In Europe, Catholic churches may not get used to the extent they once were, but they’re almost never completely shut down or demolished, and it’s only within the past 30 years in the United States that bishops have moved to close many churches.

In addition, canon lawyers had worked exclusively for dioceses or religious orders. Only in recent years have people like Gray and Kuenstler begun representing lay people and pushing the Vatican courts to make rulings on church closures.

“Unlike other areas of canon law, the jurisprudence on church closures is actively developing. It’s a new area,” Gray said. “Until about 30 years ago, it was very rare for a church to close.”

So, he added, “we’re really at the front end of developing jurisprudence,” and at the Vatican “there seems to a greater sensitivity” to the arguments of lay people.

The decision at St. Ann might have an impact on another area church, St. Mary in Lockport, where parishioners still have an active appeal. St. Mary parish was merged in 2007 with other Lockport parishes. The church was shut down in 2011.

“I pray every day that we can open again,” said longtime parishioner Michael Ulrich, part of a parishioner group that spent more than $50,000 on an appeal process that has dragged on for six years. “I’d love nothing more than just to have a Mass there every once in a while.”

Architectural gem

Built by German immigrants, St. Ann is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Western New York and features an architecturally stunning interior of intricately painted plaster and woodwork, exquisite stained-glass windows and other detailing of the period.

The sanctuary can seat up to 1,200 people. The parish had been in decline for decades, though, and in recent years, weekend Masses attracted few people, even as structural problems with the church began to mount, including water damage to interior walls, cracking in corner buttresses and the potential for falling stone from the church’s west tower.

When Bishop Edward U. Kmiec merged St. Ann parish in 2007 with nearby SS. Columba & Brigid, he allowed St. Ann Church to remain open as a “temporary worship site.”

But he eventually moved to close St. Ann in 2011.

That’s when parishioners first filed an appeal, forestalling closure. Parishioners also separately appealed the parish merger, but the Vatican sided with the diocese because they had not acted on that appeal within specified time limits.

Then, in 2012, Kmiec ordered all operations at St. Ann suspended, saying structural damage in the church posed too much of a safety threat to allow people inside.

A group of about 60 St. Ann parishioners has continued to worship together in other venues, including the basement of the former St. Ann school building.

Last August, Malone issued another decree reducing the church to secular use and announced his intention to raze it. Eleven days later, he agreed to explore possibilities for the church outside of demolition, in conjunction with Preservation Buffalo Niagara, the area’s main preservation group.

Diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan said that the bishop remains opposed to keeping the building open for Catholic worship, but is committed to finding a new use for the structure.

Marshalling resources

In the past, local preservationists have been highly critical of the diocese’s handling of Catholic church buildings, some of which were sold off to entities that couldn’t afford to maintain the buildings and ended up vacant, stripped of their valuable interior effects and ultimately derelict.

But Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, said the diocese has been “extremely cooperative” in trying to preserve St. Ann.

A Rochester developer has expressed interest in the property, which also includes a large school building that could be converted into apartments, Yots said.

Still, the church presents a sizeable challenge, because much of its architectural value is in the interior ecclesiastical artwork and detailing.

“Any project that would be done there would have to respect the interior of that building as much as possible,” he said.

In the end, the church merits preservation, which means significant resources will have to be marshalled, he said.

Yots expressed optimism about the prospects.

But, he added, if there’s a preoccupation about what the building must be used for, “there’s not going to be enough emphasis placed on actually preserving the building.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com