Jean Ripepi, 87, remembers her first mass at St. Anthony Church. The building had two wings separated by a bell tower and stood atop a hill overlooking downtown Monongahela. She was entering a new faith and a new marriage. Ripepi had been raised in the Polish Catholic Church — a sect not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church — and converted to her husband Angelo’s denomination after they wed.
Italian-American identity was the cornerstone of St. Anthony. The Diocese of Pittsburgh established the parish in 1904 to connect an Italian-speaking priest to the throngs of immigrants settling in industrial river towns like Monongahela. St. Anthony went through a few buildings and makeshift locations before the church that was completed in the 1950s. Jean Ripepi’s husband’s family was Italian, so of course they attended St. Anthony.
“We attended [our]first Mass in 1957 and were active members since,” she said. “My husband’s family helped sustain it.” In addition to tithes, she says various Ripepis have put in countless hours of “sweat equity,” working on repair projects and volunteering for the annual festival for its patron saint held the third weekend in June. She was confirmed as a Roman Catholic there.
Now, St. Anthony is shuttered. A sign prohibiting loitering, skateboarding and other nuisance uses that plague empty parking lots stands awkwardly outside the ornate entranceway and neatly trimmed hedges.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh closed it in 2014, claiming that Monongahela — whose population had decreased by half since its 1950 prime of 8,922 — could not support both St. Anthony and its other parish, Transfiguration. After a long and contentious process, the Diocese merged the two into a new parish, called St. Damien of Molokai, and chose the former Transfiguration building as its site of worship. (There is a difference between a parish and a church: a parish is a spiritual community recognized by a Diocese and usually allotted a priest. A church is a building where that community meets. The two words are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is important when discussing Catholic bylaws.)
Not every former St. Anthony congregant has marched into the fold of St. Damien of Molokai. Some meet weekly in the Ripepi home to share covered dishes, prayers and Bible verses.
“We’ve done it ever since [the closure],” said Barbara Falappi. “We have a prayer service. It’s an excuse to get together. We do a lot of things. This is a spiritual family.”
Some of them also meet to plan a legal strategy. Five former St. Anthony congregants are suing the Diocese of Pittsburgh, accusing its leadership of defrauding them. They say the Diocese baited them into investing money to save St. Anthony when the Diocese had already decided to close the church.
“We felt like a franchise,” said Falappi, one of the plaintiffs, “that we either had to pay up or they were taking their name off the building.”
They aren’t the only ones. Former congregants of St. Agnes in Richeyville, another Washington County town, have enlisted the same lawyers — Steven Toprani and Michael Hammond of Dodaro, Matta and Cambest — and filed suit, alleging the Diocese also defrauded them into giving money to sustain a church whose fate was sealed. St. Agnes ceased regular services in 2017 and the Diocese consolidated its parish into a “mega-parish” grouping of former parishes in Washington County.
“They keep asking [for donations] until the parishes are merged and that’s the game they play,” said Hammond.
In the case of both mergers, the Diocese had several church buildings from which to choose as a home for the new consolidated parish. Both lawsuits say the Diocese chose to close more desirable buildings — whose upkeeps were the result of donations and work from congregants who are being displaced. Hammond said the Diocese is intentionally shuttering the churches that fetch more on the real estate market.
Bob DeWitt, a spokesperson for the Diocese, said the organization won’t comment on ongoing litigation. Plaintiffs from St. Agnes declined to speak to PublicSource.
In November, a judge in Washington County Common Pleas Court dismissed the cases, arguing that First Amendment freedom of religion and precedents of Pennsylvania case law prevented the court from ruling on internal matters of the Diocese. An appeal to the Vatican also failed. The plaintiffs have appealed the civil court case.
Hammond said he wants to force the Diocese into discovery, the legal process by which evidence in a civil suit is viewed by both parties. He said that may shed light on Diocese financial practices. “We want to see their books,” he said.
Parish consolidation, the process that left congregants of St. Anthony and St. Agnes disillusioned and combative, will play out across the Diocese in the coming years. Citing a priest shortage and a diminishing Catholic population, the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced that it would shift its 188 individual parishes — spread out across six counties — into 57 groupings. They will no doubt shut down some churches and redirect their attendees to others.
This process can be “brutal,” pitting parish against neighboring parish, said Peter Borre, co-chair of the Council of Parishes, a Boston-based organization that advocates for individual parishes within the Church hierarchy and advised the St. Anthony congregants. “There are three or five [pre-existing] parishes trying to compete against each other, trying to survive. It can be like a circular firing squad.”
Money recently donated may again become an issue. In the years before its massive reconsolidation, the Diocese of Pittsburgh embarked on a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for Church Alive!, which was an astounding success. When the campaign began in 2012, its goal was to raise $125 million. The Diocese announced it had received $149.8 million from the faithful, with a total of $234 million pledged. Those parishioners gave under the promise of benefits to their specific parishes, parishes that the Diocese may soon effectively eliminate.
The growth and decline of Catholicism
When the Diocese of Pittsburgh begat St. Anthony Parish to minister to Monongahela’s Italian-speaking population, Italian immigrants were spreading across Western Pennsylvania in a vast wave, working in coal mines and steel mills. They helped build up the ranks of Catholics within the Diocese of Pittsburgh, from 270,000 in 1897 to a peak of 962,412 in 1975, according to church directories.
More recent shifts in demographics have not been as kind to the Diocese. In the 1980s, deindustrialization and an exodus of young people diminished the population of Pittsburgh and its suburbs. Bishop Donald Wuerl led a consolidation of the parishes, from 332 to 218.
Catholic Church membership has actually grown nationwide by 68 percent since 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It has been buoyed in part by a new immigration wave, from Latin America. But in depopulating areas like Pittsburgh, the ranks of Catholics continue to dwindle. In 2016, Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh stood at 632,138, down by about a third from 1975.
And today’s Catholics are less reliable churchgoers. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, fewer than 40 percentare in church on any given Sunday — down from three out of four attending church weekly in 1955. Many people who are counted as Catholic by confirmation do not actually participate in the church, said Borre, and aren’t financially supporting any parishes. “Lapsed Catholics are in the millions,” he said. “Society has become too secular or consumerist.”
Another major challenge is a priest shortage. While the number of priests stays steady worldwide, in the United States, it has dropped from 59,192 in 1970 to 37,181 in 2017.
“You cannot staff everything with religious sisters and deacons. There is a terrible lack of religious vocations,” wrote Jack Ruhl, a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University's Haworth College of Business and an expert on Diocesan finances and restructuring, in an email to PublicSource.
It’s not an attractive profession, after years of sexual abuse scandals, he said. “I had a priest friend in Chicago who told me that when he would go out somewhere [and] strangers would glare at him in disgust or would actually say nasty things to him. Who wants to be a priest today?” There are the disincentives of a celibacy vow and low pay and “like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they ‘don’t get no respect.’”
The Church is ordaining fewer priests in the U.S. and the Diocese of Pittsburgh has fewer Catholics for them to serve than in decades past. Taking all that into account, Bishop David Zubik unveiled a plan last April to reduce 188 individual parishes into 57 groupings, with decisions to come concerning which churches in each grouping stay and which are shuttered. (In some cases, churches that are part of “mega-parishes” stay open as auxiliary sites, available for weddings, celebrations and/or holiday Masses.)
In Washington County, a process like this started 10 years ago.
The saint of lost things
In 2007, the Diocese launched a study to determine the viability of parishes in Monongahela, Donora and Charleroi, three depopulated towns in the Mon Valley. Two years later, the study was completed and recommended the merger of St. Anthony and Transfiguration. Zubik issued a decree merging the parishes in 2011.
According to the lawsuit, then began two years of meetings of parishioners and clergy to discuss the possibility of keeping open both churches, served under one parish. St. Anthony still had regular services. Plaintiffs say that Diocesan representatives led them to believe that if enough funding was raised, St. Anthony would remain open. They claim they reduced the church’s debt load of $144,000 to $44,000 in one year and a private donor offered to pay the remainder, but the priest of the new St. Damien of Molokai parish refused it. They also claim that $2 million was spent on renovations, including the installation of a new roof.
Laura Magone, one of the plaintiffs, said she and other congregants gave as much as they could to “show that we have an interest and ability to sustain it.”
The lawsuit states that in his decree, Zubik made arguments referencing the “financial distress” of St. Anthony. These statements were “blatant falsehoods,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that the St. Anthony building is in better condition than the former Transfiguration one, which has no parking lot and had no bathroom until after the merger, at which point the parish spent $30,000 installing one.
The plaintiffs claim the Diocese kept open the former Transfiguration building and shuttered St. Anthony because it had long planned to sell the St. Anthony building, which would fetch more on the real estate market. They claim their fundraising efforts only went to making it even more profitable.
The suit alleges fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment, among other claims. It seeks injunctive relief, essentially asking a judge to prevent the Diocese from selling the building.
At the heart of the lawsuit over St. Agnes is a similar claim, according to Hammond: the Diocese consolidated parishes and left congregants in a less desirable building, so a better one can raise capital at sale.
The church building that until recently housed St. Agnes parish was constructed in the early 2000s. The lawsuit claims that in February 2015, Pastor Edward Yuhas advised the congregation via letter that St. Agnes would be closed and its parish merged with four others nearby. A month later, Yuhas allegedly told them the closure had been rescinded. The next nine months were reportedly filled with confusion over its fate, but parishioners continued to attend Mass and provided tithes, donations and offerings of at least $100,000.
The suit claims that an engineering study, ordered during the consolidation process, showed that St. Agnes’ building would have the lowest future maintenance costs. It also asserts the building is the one most central to the five former parishes, but the Diocese instead chose to house the new St. Katharine Drexel Parish in a church building in Bentleyville that dates to 1909.
The former St. Agnes parishioners are also seeking an order preventing the Diocese from selling the building.
The plaintiffs are in the uncomfortable position of battling, in court, an institution that guided their spiritual lives.
“I used to be a Roman Catholic,” said Falappi, a retired healthcare worker. “Now I am a roaming Catholic. I will never, ever give up the Catholic faith.” But she said she hasn’t joined a Diocese-sanctioned parish yet and says she lost confidence in Zubik, a defendant in the lawsuit.
The Ripepis went to a few services at St. Damien of Molokai, but Angelo has mobility difficulties and the church relies on street parking, whereas St. Anthony has a parking lot with handicapped spaces. It was too difficult to coordinate their attendance, Jean Ripepi said. A lay minister comes to their home to perform the communion ritual, a vital part of maintaining status as Catholics for them.
At the weekly get-togethers at their home, congregants light devotional candles to St. Anthony of Padua. A Franciscan friar who left his home country of Portugal and spent time preaching in Italy, he was an obvious choice for the patron saint of St. Anthony Parish when it was founded; he was an immigrant and familiar in the country of origin for the Italian-born congregants.
For a congregation that lost its church and its faith in its leaders, he has a new significance: St. Anthony is the saint of lost things.
Awash in donations, but spending is unclear
Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are fewer these days, but they are generous.
When a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for the Church Alive! began in 2012 with a goal to raise $125 million, Zubik promised to split the money between individual parishes and Diocese-wide efforts.
“It will focus first on individual parishes – on the ways that parishes can continue to fulfill a vision that limited resources have denied,” he wrote in the pamphlet announcing the effort. “It will also focus on some goals for us collectively as the Church of Pittsburgh.”
Specifically, the campaign assigned each parish a fundraising goal, based on financial history and membership numbers. For every dollar raised from that parish, 40 cents was promised to go back to the parish — until it reached its goal. After that, the parish would receive 60 cents of each dollar. (Seven percent went to pay off fundraising costs and that portion was taken evenly from parish and Diocese-wide funds.) Some parishes ran campaigns concurrent to Church Alive! that went only to that parish.
The Diocese spent the money collected for its central fund on Catholic schools, tuition assistance, charitable causes, continuing education for priests and lay leaders, retirement funds for clergy and evangelizing efforts, among other uses.
Church Alive! far exceeded the Diocese’s expectations. In its 2015 report to donors, the campaign announced $62.6 million had been raised and donors had committed $230 million in pledges to be paid through 2019. In its 2016 report, the campaign had $105 million in the bank. By 2017, it blew past its goal, with $130 million in donations on hand. By 2018, that number had budged to nearly $150 million, with $234 million pledged.
The first pamphlet for Church Alive! stated that “each parish is in the best position to determine its extraordinary needs, and among them its most urgent priorities.” However, the Diocese did not simply give pastors a sum to spend as they saw fit. Each parish came up with a “case statement” detailing their desired use of the money, usually written by a pastor in consultation with lay leadership, said Diocese spokesperson Dewitt. They submitted that to an advisory council of 15 pastors from parishes across the Diocese for approval.
“Much of the campaign funding earmarked for parishes was expended on long-deferred repair projects for buildings and properties that needed to be completed regardless of future use of parish sites,” DeWitt wrote in an email. “Some donations were invested in [Americans with Disabilities Act] access, such as wheelchair ramps and automatic doors. Campaign funds also have been invested in parish programs such as faith formation and evangelization.”
Many parishes did not spend as much as they wanted to on building improvements, according to a church official involved in Church Alive! who spoke on condition of anonymity and who said his motive to talk was a need for greater financial transparency within Catholic institutions. The pastors’ advisory council routinely rejected expensive renovations and case statements that solely or largely requested money for building repairs. The Diocese had already decided that many of its buildings would be put up for sale in the coming years and preferred funds spent on evangelical and educational expenses, even at the local level, he said. The Diocese “did not want to repair buildings,” he said.
In 2015, at the height of the fundraising effort, the Diocese launched Our Mission for the Church Alive!, the program to review and consolidate all its parishes. Despite the very similar name, it is a different project from Our Campaign for the Church Alive!
There is no publicly available accounting of how much Church Alive! money went to brick-and-mortar projects. When asked for one, DeWitt pointed to the 2015 annual report. In addition to only detailing the campaign’s earliest stages, the report does not have any account of spending in parishes, only a list of “campaign results,” showing the sum pledged and percent of a target reached for each parish.
Such results by parish were only included in the first annual report. In an email to PublicSource, DeWitt wrote that $70.8 million in total has been received by parishes for their local priorities. But the Diocese did not provide an account of how much went to individual parishes or how it was spent.
However, the campaign kept donors well informed of how the Diocese-wide money was spent from 2014 to 2017. Annual reports detailed grants totaling $44,770,400: $1 million to underwrite the costs of a full-time dentist at the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, $1 million to create a program for “pro-life” outreach to expectant mothers, $151,080 for new servers and software for website of The Pittsburgh Catholic, $50,000 for print and electronic media to recruit men to the priesthood and $32,000 to increase attendance at the annual Gathering of Catholic Men.
The Church Alive! campaign also issued quarterly “Good Works” newsletters. For several years, the newsletters included a section entitled “Progress in the Parishes” that outlined anecdotal church improvements across the Diocese: roof replacements, stained glass repairs, ramp installations, repaved parking lots, new boilers. Unlike Diocese-wide spending, no dollar amount was attached to these projects and there was no comprehensive account.
The summer 2016 newsletter was the last to feature a “Progress in Our Parishes” section. There seemed to be a shift in focus: In spring of 2017, the newsletter highlighted Father Michael Decewicz of St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg, for using a smaller portion of funds than anticipated on parish hall renovations and redirecting them to ministry projects for the young and the elderly.
DeWitt wrote that the Diocese “neither emphasized nor de-emphasized these parish projects. They were developed, promoted and managed at the local parish level, and continue to be handled locally.” Many were “completed” so the Diocese’s “more recent updates have focused on diocesan-wide grants.”
One project promised to channel some of the Diocese’s share of funds from the campaign to “struggling” parishes outside the city. The 2013 brochure outlined the “Grants for Parishes in Need” program, saying that $7 million would “help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in those areas in our Diocese where the Church must remain present…. where, if a parish disappears, the presence of Church disappears as well.”
“When we speak about our Diocese we speak of it as the ‘Church of Pittsburgh,’” it reads. “Yet it is important to always remind ourselves that our Church stretches from the most northern tip of Lawrence County to the most southern parish boundaries in Greene County.”
But millions from that program didn’t go to the Diocese’s geographic fringes, according to annual reports. In 2016, $250,000 from the program went to St. Stephen in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood to help convert a school into a community center. In 2017, $2,203,200 earmarked for “Grants to Parishes in Need,” went to a plan to reach youth in Pittsburgh, to “support of Hispanic ministry in Diocese” and to “Our Mission for The Church Alive!” - the program to consolidate parishes. (No other money for that program has been accounted for.)
DeWitt said that outreach to other cross-sections of the church was a consistent interpretation of the original intent. “Part of the diocesan-wide funds are meant to help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in areas of the diocese where the Church must remain present — and this includes assistance for urban youth and the Hispanic community,” he wrote.
One may wonder why a Diocese whose parishioners have just pledged nearly double what it asked in a fundraising campaign is drastically reducing the parishes to which those donors belong.
The anonymous church official said the timing of the two efforts was not coincidental. Despite the sunny verbiage of Church Alive! promotional materials, the Diocese expected to have fewer buildings and less of a presence in the future, he said. Church leaders saw that congregations had aged and Church Alive! was prompted by the knowledge that Baby Boomers may be the last sizable and wealthy cohort involved in churches in the Diocese. For some parishes, this would be the last era in which they would be able to pay off a debt load. The official said, “There was frank recognition that going forward, we would have fewer people.”
Who owns a church?
Parish consolidations have occurred throughout the history of the church and have been prevalent recently in parts of the Rust Belt and Northeast where Catholic participation is declining, said Borre, who founded the Council of Parishes to counter parish mergers in his native Boston. The Pittsburgh plan is the widest and most comprehensive he’s seen.
These plans can play out with acrimony, particularly when churches are closed. “That’s when it hits the faithful right in the gut,” Borre said. Many churches have been parts of congregants’ lives since birth and the site of confirmations and weddings. It’s particularly fraught when the Diocese sells the location and former congregants look at their old church building and see “a bar or some condos.”
Often parishioners go to lengths to demonstrate to the Diocese that their congregation can support itself — or at least do better than the other congregations nearby whose church may remain open as the home of the newly merged parish.
Borre said he helps parishes apply all the way to the Vatican, but in the end they have to accept: “The Catholic Church is not a democracy.”
Laura Magone, one of the St. Anthony plaintiffs, said parishioners in the Mon Valley always understood the Diocese of Pittsburgh controlled how their church was run. “We know that money goes up the river and orders come down from it,” referring to the Monongahela River with which her town shares a name.
None of the St. Anthony plaintiffs gave to Church Alive!, instead dedicating their money to trying to save their church — which they ultimately consider theirs.
“We think of our church as our church,” Magone said. “The Diocese said everything belongs to the Diocese.”
They’ll press their claim in court. Magone hopes that as the Diocese merges other parishes and as other congregations consider pressing their case against a Diocesan decision, their effort shows that there are options besides just shuffling into a pew in a church across town. “We didn’t know what to do or who to believe when this started,” Magone said. “Now we can show others what they can do.”
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Reuters, Slate, Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.