CLEVELAND – Twelve Roman Catholic parishes that were closed by local church officials but then surprisingly spared by the Vatican will be reopened, the Cleveland bishop announced Tuesday.
Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon said he didn't want to drag out the dispute over the churches' fate, create more uncertainty or divide the area's Catholic community.
His announcement was a response to last month's extraordinary Vatican decision to overrule his closing of the 12 parishes, a rare instance in which Rome reversed a U.S. bishop on the shutdown of churches.
Lennon had ordered the churches closed over the past several years because of declining numbers of priests and parishioners and financial issues. The Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy ruled Lennon failed to follow church law and procedure in the closings.
Parishioners, many of them second- and third-generation members of the churches, challenged some of the closings, staged sit-ins and other protests and even created a breakaway congregation.
Lennon said "it's time for peace and unity in the Diocese of Cleveland" and time for Catholics to come together to better serve people's needs.
"The church is primarily about people, their faith, and not about buildings," Lennon said.
Parishioners who opposed the closings were ecstatic.
"It's a miracle," said Olga Sarbinowska, a Polish-born member of St. Casimir, where parishioners held weekly prayer services outside the church.
She didn't display any hard feelings toward the bishop.
"I think he was guided by God's hand," she said.
At St. Patrick Church in Cleveland's tight-knit West Park neighborhood, several parishioners gathered on the front steps of the locked-up church to display green and white "Save St. Pat's" placards that had lined the curb for years. Some signs were updated to say "Saved St. Pat's."
A "Thank you Vatican" placard rose out of a flower pot at the church door.
Across the street, outside his family-owned funeral home, Dan Chambers said the revival of St. Patrick was welcome news.
"It has always been an anchor for the neighborhood. When it was closed, we were very concerned about the neighbors and the neighborhood," he said.
"With the reopening, I think it gives new life to our area, which we are very happy about."
The 12 churches were among 50 shut down or merged by Lennon. The cutbacks left the eight-county Cleveland Diocese with 174 parishes in all as Catholics and members of the wider community moved out of Cleveland for suburban communities.
Cleveland's population has fallen 17 percent, to just under 400,000, since 2000 and the number of Catholics in the diocese has declined from 797,000 to 710,000 since 2007.
Many of the reopening parishes still face some of the challenges that spurred their closures, and they will have to show that they have the funding and active membership needed to keep operating, though the diocese is willing to assist them, Lennon said. He said officials have yet to make major staffing decisions but noted the area's clerical resources would be spread thinner because fewer priests are available.
The diocese had begun selling its closed churches, with some bought by other denominations and charter schools. The sales were put on hold in cases where the closings were challenged.
Lennon said earlier reports that 13 closed churches had been spared by the Vatican were incorrect. The number originated last month from an attorney who was working with parishioners challenging the closings.