Police Arrest Parishioners at New Orleans Church

Police on Tuesday cleared out two New Orleans Catholic churches occupied by former parishioners opposed to the archdiocese's decision to close them, breaking down a door at one.

Two protesters were arrested and at least two more were issued citations, police said.

"It's our property. It's our church. It belongs to the Archdiocese of New Orleans," said The Very Rev. Michael Jacques, a member of the archdiocese's Council of Deans.

Officers forced open the door at Our Lady of Good Counsel in the city's Uptown neighborhood, arresting two people occupying the building, and issued one of the summons to a protester occupying St. Henry's, also in Uptown.

Parishioners calling themselves the Friends of Our Lady of Good Counsel had occupied their church since October, when the archdiocese closed it and several others in an economic move to consolidate parishes following Hurricane Katrina and shifting populations of Catholics in the area.

St. Henry's parishioner Cynthia Robidoux, 46, said she received a summons to appear in municipal court after brokering a deal with police to allow others keeping vigil to leave.

"It's unbelievable. They stole my church," Robidoux said of the archdiocese.

The church viewed the parishioners as trespassers and called police after the protesters repeatedly refused to leave. They said a routine inspection of church property on Monday found that the doors at Our Lady of Good Counsel were locked and barricaded.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey said parishioners were removed to protect the safety and security of the buildings and the people occupying them, which included children and the elderly.

"The archdiocese all along had hopes for a peaceful resolution to the occupations, but recent events made it necessary for us to go forward," Comiskey said.

Cheron Brylski, a parishioner who was outside Our Lady of Good Counsel, said the group had been trying to mediate the dispute with the archdiocese. "Instead, they are using force," she said.

Police used a battering ram to break down the church's back door, said Poppy Z. Brite, one of the two people arrested at Good Counsel.

Brite, a local author of eight novels, said she and another protester were booked and charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest and were released without bond to appear Wednesday in Municipal Court.

A third person taken from the church in handcuffs was Harold Baquet, 50, a photographer for Loyola University of New Orleans. Brylski, Baquet's wife, said police put him in a patrol car and took him home.

One of the protesters who was not arrested, Dorothy Payton, 72, said Tuesday was the first day she had participated in the vigil. She said police told the group inside the church that they would be arrested. "They started praying the Rosary. That's when they handcuffed them and walked them out," she said.

In November, a state court judge dismissed a lawsuit by the parishioners seeking to keep Our Lady of Good Counsel open, saying the group did not have standing to sue. Brylski said they were appealing that ruling.

The closing was part of a reorganization begun early in 2008 to reduce the number of parishes. In all, 36 have been closed.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes has said the archdiocese must downsize to survive population changes and structural damage caused by Katrina and a shortage of priests.

New Orleans' Catholic population has been shifting for decades as descendants of Irish, Italian, French and German immigrants moved from the city's older areas and into the suburbs, where new church parishes have grown.

About one-third of New Orleans' pre-storm population of 455,000 has not returned, though it was not clear how many were Catholics.