Parishioners of Our Lady of the Atonement (OLA) Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas are claiming Abp. Gustavo García-Siller is removing Fr. Christopher Phillips in order to repurpose the parish, which has a solid reputation for orthodoxy and reverent liturgy.
Siller distributed a letter to parishioners on January 19 stating, "I have asked your pastor ... to dedicate some time to reflect on some specific concerns that I have shared with him."
It continues, "These specific concerns relate to expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese."
He adds, "During this time of reflection and prayer, Fr. Phillips will not have the responsibility of pastoral care or authority in the parish."
Parishioners are responding in shock and sadness. Charles Wilson, OLA parishioner and chairman of the St. Joseph Foundation, calls Siller's decision "illegal and abusive."
"He gives the impression that we are simply in a period of 'reflection and prayer,'" Wilson commented. "I can tell you with certainty that this is not true. Instead, the archbishop has initiated the canonical process to remove Fr. Phillips as our pastor."
He concludes, "If he succeeds, you can expect that Our Lady of the Atonement will become a territorial parish with perhaps one Anglican Use liturgy per week. All that we have sacrificed for will be lost."
An inside source close to the situation told Church Militant, "Many within the OLA are saying this is a land grab. The archbishop has the legal right to keep the property, of course, but for five years now the presumption has been that OLA would eventually become part of the Ordinariate."
"Promises and assurances were made to OLA about the Ordinariate," he said. "They were just broken. The archbishop will keep the property and those who want to join the ordinariate can just move on."
In December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI established a personal ordinariate for former Anglicans, basically giving them their own diocese. The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (the Ordinariate) was erected in Houston, Texas, in 2012 and incorporates 45 parishes in the United States and Canada.
Although OLA was the first Anglican Use parish in the United States, it has not yet been incorporated into the Ordinariate, and some in the parish believe the archdiocese doesn't want that to happen.
Wilson noted the Ordinariate "was erected with Our Lady of the Atonement in mind. The Ordinariate wants us to become a parish, and we want to join just as diocesan parishes in Houston, Fort Worth, Scranton, Omaha and elsewhere have done."
He continued, "In fact, it was Fr. Phillips' petition to do just that that prompted the archbishop's illegal and abusive action."
Father Phillips and OLA are important to the history of the development of the Anglican Ordinariate in the United States.
In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II issued a pastoral provision allowing the ordination of married Anglican Protestant clergy who wish to convert to the Catholic faith. It further directed that provisional parishes — also called Anglican Use parishes — be established to allow Anglican converts to keep many aspects of their Anglican heritage, liturgy and traditions.
Phillips, originally living in Rhode Island, was a married man and considered a priest in the Episcopalian Protestant community. After study, he desired to convert to the Catholic Church.
He contacted Bp. Louis Gelineau of the diocese of Providence, but Gelineau refused to ordain and establish Phillips in the diocese because of an agreement between the Catholic and Episcopal bishops of Providence, promising they wouldn't seek converts from each others clergy.
In 1983, he was invited to a community of Episcopalian converts in San Antonio, where he was ordained a priest by Abp. Patrick Flores and made pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement — the first Anglican Use parish in the United States.
Since 1983, OLA has grown to be a successful Catholic parish, with Abp. Siller enthusing:
Your community has become a parish that draws many Catholics with a desire for clarity of doctrine and traditional liturgical expression. I have known your parish, in my many pastoral visits, to be a place of contemplation and reverence, a place of beauty in architecture, decor and expression, a place of doctrinal clarity, and a place of close-knit community.
Atonement Academy, the pre-K–12 school attached to OLA and started by Fr. Philips, currently enrolls more than 500 students. Philips noted in a 2011 interview that students attend Mass daily and must participate in the school's choral music program.
One of the main apostolates for the church is education. Is not just about teaching them arithmetic; it's about forming them as Catholics, and that includes a high standard of intellectual formation, teaching all the stuff they need to learn as far as math and science, too. But all within the context of the completeness of their faith! How can you educate a child without referring to God and what God has done in our lives? You're only forming half the child.
Wilson notes in his letter, "The threat faced by our parish is extremely grave, but I cannot believe that Our Lady would have nourished and protected us all those years just to abandon us now. After all, this is Christ's Church and in the end he will be victorious, no matter how grim things may appear in the immediate future."
The case is now making its way to the Vatican, and Wilson is telling people, "[P]ray like we have never prayed before for a speedy and favorable outcome."