About 150 parishioners from St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Elizabeth, N.J., traveled by caravan Jan. 6 to Sacred Heart Cathedral in an effort to reverse an order by Archbishop John Myers that the four priests living in their parish rectory vacate this month.
The archbishop's order -- which parishioners view as an eviction notice
and a summary dismissal of hard-working clergy without recognition of
their longtime contribution to the church and the people of Elizabeth --
was delivered to three of the priests by telephone the week before
The pastor, Msgr. Robert Harrington, 67, said he received a letter from
Myers in July notifying him that he was to leave at year's end for
"I have no idea why they wanted to clean house on the others," he told NCR
by telephone Jan. 6, while packing his belongings. Later this month he
will move to Brighton Gardens assisted living facility in Mountainside,
The priest, a diabetic, is a partial amputee. He lives in a rectory
attached to the church, has a hospital bed, an elevator outside his
bedroom, a motorized wheelchair and an altar that local firemen made
accessible. He also has a handicapped accessible car and remains,
according to parishioners who rallied outside the cathedral, the
catalyst and inspiration behind many of St. Mary's ministries. These
include feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in
prison and in the Federal Detention Center in Elizabeth, and aiding
those affected by Hurricane Sandy and the earthquake in Haiti.
Jim Goodness, communications director for the Newark archdiocese,
pointed to the pastor's "severe health conditions" and to financial
concerns as reasons for bringing in a new administration. Two parochial
vicars have been appointed and a pastor will be named in the coming
weeks, Goodness told NCR. Myers has placed Fr. Charles Kelly as St. Mary's temporary administrator at this time.
Goodness said two of the priests who've been asked to leave -- Fr. Jack
Martin and Fr. Pat Donohue -- are retired, and a younger priest, Fr.
Esterminio Chica, has been reassigned.
Goodness added that retired
priests receive an archdiocesan pension and can choose where they want
to live -- "a condo, apartment, with family." They do not have to live
in a priests' retirement home, he said.
St. Mary owes the archdiocese $1.4 million, both Goodness and
Harrington confirmed. Harrington said the debt has accrued since 1994
when the archdiocese ceased granting the parish $111,000 a year in
assistance. The parish has been paying its bills, but has been unable to
pay insurance costs that exceed $35,000 per year and the $35,000 annual
archdiocesan assessment, Harrington said.
St. Mary's is one of 11 Catholic parishes in Elizabeth, New Jersey's
fourth-largest city, which has 125,000 citizens. Begun in 1844 by Irish
immigrants, the parish is the oldest in Union County. Today many of its
900 parishioners are factory, port, airport and transit workers who hail
from several countries in Central and South America, the Caribbean and
The parish had an elementary school as well as a high school, whose
total enrollment once reached 800 pupils. Some years ago, the grammar
school was merged with two others in Elizabeth and the high school
population has fallen from about 300 students to 125 today.
also includes a convent of 10 retired Sisters of Charity, the
congregation that served St. Mary's for over a century.
Harrington spoke of a previous vice principal at the high school, now
deceased, who was a prolific fundraiser and who helped procure almost a
million dollars for the school. The former pastor, Msgr. Paul Bootkoski,
now bishop of Metuchen, N.J., told the vice principal to place the
money in three separate portfolios, Harrington said -- one for tuition
aid, another for teacher enrichment and one for capital expenses.
According to Harrington, "The money was never in Msgr. Bootkoski's time or in mine reported to the archdiocese."
He said some $400,000 of the fund has been used for St. Mary of the
Assumption High School and $600,000 remains. "But the archdiocese
believes the money is owed to them," he said.
"The money is for the high school," he said. "It's not something we ever tapped into to pay parish bills."
During the last 22 years, the parish has subsidized the high school
with "zero dollars," Harrington said. All of the school's expenses have
been met by the special fund, by fundraisers and by tuition, which at
$1,400 per student is the lowest in the county, he said.
Harrington, who has been St. Mary's pastor since 1990 and a priest for
41 years, said he has been unable to get Myers to sit down and talk with
him. "He won't see me, he won't take my calls, but I have a paper trail
from him that goes on forever."
He said that none of the priests or the parish's three deacons had
anything to do with the rally outside the cathedral nor with a press
conference that parishioners also held outside the Archdiocesan Center
Jan. 3. Both were initiatives organized by parishioners, he said.
For some two hours, parishioners and their supporters -- from local
Voice of the Faithful, Pax Christi and other urban and suburban groups
in the archdiocese -- processed around the two-block-long cathedral
seven times, recalling the Old Testament story of Joshua's troops
marching seven times around Jericho.
They carried placards asking that the priests be allowed to stay in the
rectory and that the parish's 65 ministries and outreach programs be
able to continue.
The group prayed in English and Spanish, translating each other's
prayers into a megaphone after each lap around the cathedral, the
archbishop's residence and the chancery.
"We want the bishop to open his heart and talk to us," parishioner Maritsa Jaramillo said.
"I'm disappointed as a Catholic and as a catechist how this was handled," she told NCR. "We are more than the buildings and the property; we are the church."
The marchers carried a list of five requests. Among them was the call
for a formal response and dialogue between the archdiocese and
representatives of St. Mary's parishioners to begin by Jan. 13. Although
no parish representative had heard from anyone in the chancery by the
time NCR went to press, many remained hopeful.
"If there are financial problems, the priests are part of the
solution," parishioner Dominic Iorio said. "You don't solve anything by
Martin, who will leave Jan. 31 after eight years at St. Mary's, said
he's still praying over offers to live at four other rectories. "When
you're bilingual and receive a monthly pension, you get a lot of
invitations," he said, noting that he'd also gotten 20 offers from
parishioners to live in their homes. "I know I'm not going to be
sleeping in the train station or hospital lobby."
Martin, 75, said he retired last February so that his pension could
help the parish budget. He said Harrington is one of the church's
biggest donors. "He's putting his own money into the collection."
When asked whether there would be an investigation of the parish's
finances once all the priests left, Goodness said: "These are personnel
issues. I can't answer that now."