For many, the arches inside St. Joseph Catholic Church echo with the memories of some of the most important events of their lives. From baptisms to marriages to funerals, the generations-old church has been a gathering place for dedicated parishioners for nearly 160 years.
Those parishioners fought back tears Sunday at a reception following an emotional farewell mass celebrated by the Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, archbishop of Mobile.
“I don’t know how far back it goes,” a choked-up Jan Anderson said of her family’s connection to the church. “It’s been my whole life. This was always a sanctuary for us.”
Anderson said they celebrated every family event at the church on Springhill Avenue downtown. Almost a year after Rodi announced the church would close and its parish would be consolidated into the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception just blocks away, it’s still tough for people to say goodbye.
“It’s been an emotional year,” Anderson said. “We were very caught off guard. We were never included in any of the conversations.”
Inside the church, heavily decorated with statues and murals, Rodi delivered the building’s final homily Jan. 14. It was a mixture of defending his decision to close the church, built in 1907, and an attempt at soothing a parish fractured over the choice.
Rodi opened with an anecdote from what he described as a few years back. He said his family moved out of the house they had lived in for so many years. It was full of “so many good memories,” he said.
“We knew this was for the best,” he said during the homily. “Our family was more than just a house.”
As the former bishop of the Biloxi Diocese in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rodi used another anecdote to drive home his point. He said about a third of the churches in the diocese were destroyed. As he saw masses celebrated in roller rinks and under tents, he said it highlighted for him that a church is more than a building.
“A church is not a building at all … although we call a structure made of bricks and mortar a church,” he said. “A church is wherever people gather to worship.”
Rodi compared the decision to a parent’s choice to do what’s best for the family. He said in that scenario the children might say it’s not fair. Rodi said the decision to close the church was done in the best interest of the “faith family in Mobile.”
The Archdiocese of Mobile announced in March 2017 that the parish at St. Joseph would be consolidated into the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, some nine blocks away. In an email message, Rodi explained the decision. He wrote that the community within the parish’s district had diminished such that keeping it open didn’t make sense.
“In 1925 the parish had 1,800 parishioners and a large Catholic school [which today serves as Wings of Life],” he wrote. “The school was closed in 1969 due to the decline in membership in the parish. Today there are only about 10 people who live within the same parish boundaries.”
While the number of people within the parish boundary is small, many more guests come from other areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties to celebrate mass at the 110-year-old church.
While the exact number of parishioners within a given boundary may be quantifiable, Rodi and parishioners disagree about the average attendance at the weekly 9 a.m. mass. In the email, Rodi wrote that between 50 and 70 people attend mass each week. Several parishioners argued it’s more often 100 to 150.
“It’s absolutely untrue,” a concerned parishioner said of Rodi’s estimation. “There were at least 100 people [each week]. They may say that’s not enough.”
At issue for a number of parishioners is the way in which the decision to consolidate was made. The parishioner Lagniappe spoke with on the condition of anonymity said church members were not given any warning of the archbishop’s thought process.
“From many of our perspectives, there is no disrespect or questioning of the archbishop to make the decision about the closure of the parish, it was in the way it was done,” the parishioner said. “It included no input from parishioners.”
In the email, Rodi said the Jesuit priests who staffed the parish until 2009 left because they felt there was no need to continue staffing the church.
“Serious thought was given at that time to closing the parish but it remained open in the hope that the parish might survive,” he wrote.
The decision by the Jesuits to leave the parish put an extra strain on the Rev. Michael Farmer, the rector at the nearby cathedral, who decided to take over the 9 a.m. mass at St. Joseph, Rodi wrote. The additional mass meant Farmer was celebrating an 8 a.m. mass, a 9 a.m. mass and a 10:30 a.m. mass on Sundays at two different churches.
“Celebrating three Masses on Sunday within a two-and-a-half-hour period has been an additional demand upon him,” Rodi wrote. “Due to the decreasing number of priests in the Archdiocese of Mobile, it is not prudent to keep open a parish having only 10 persons within the parish boundaries, especially when people who attend St. Joseph Church have the option of attending their own parish or attending the Cathedral which is only nine blocks away.”
The parishioner agreed that a diminished downtown congregation led to the Jesuits wanting “out from under” the parish. However, the parishioner said after the cathedral took over masses at St. Joseph, there was a sense that the people at the church didn’t matter as much.
“When the Archdiocese took over in 2009, masses were eliminated,” the parishioner said.
In the email, Rodi also argued that St. Joseph lacked a parish life outside of mass.
“For several years there has been no other activity in the parish except for the weekly Sunday Mass,” Rodi wrote. “Other ministries usually found in parishes, such as outreach to the poor and senior citizens, religious education for the youth, convert instruction, marriage preparation, etc., have been provided by other parishes.”
The concerned parishioner argued there is a lack of parish life at the cathedral as well. Others, such as Paul David, who attended St. Joseph for five years, said previous pastors made it impossible to have a parish life.
At the reception Sunday, David said he volunteered his teenage sons to be altar servers, but was told by a pastor at the church that altar servers weren’t necessary. He added that he was told he could not officially become a parishioner.
“The parish could not grow,” David said. “At a time when the Catholic church is trying to grow, I didn’t understand it.”
David said he believes the parish could grow given the chance.
In the email, Rodi added that contributions from weekly mass attendees could not sufficiently cover the church’s expenses.
“For many years, the parish has been using its savings to pay its expenses,” he wrote. “Inevitably, there will be expensive repairs needed to St. Joseph Church. It is anticipated that these repairs, plus the ongoing ordinary expenses, would deplete the parish savings in the foreseeable future.”
Parishioners, including David, said members were kept in the dark about finances, especially on the status of an endowment the Jesuits left for the church.
“The church has not shared any of that with us,” David said. “It’s very strange. It’s very odd.”
As for the status of the endowment, Rodi wrote that it has been managed and used exclusively for the church.
“The savings of the parish are invested in the Catholic Foundation where the savings have been well-managed by the Board and Investment Committee of the Foundation,” he wrote. “These savings have been used exclusively for parish expenses.”
Rodi called any allegation that the endowment money has been mishandled “baseless, if not disgraceful.”
A parish in Spring Hill has designs on using what’s left of the St. Joseph parish as part of a new campus. Plans for the new St. Ignatius campus are available on the parish’s website and include the idea to use items from inside St. Joseph to adorn the former Jesuit facility’s new building.
“It would be proper for the sacred objects and art to continue to be used for the purpose for which they were originally donated, namely, for the worship of God, especially if they can be used in a church in Mobile where many descendants of the original members of St. Joseph Parish now live,” Rodi wrote. “St. Ignatius Parish is planning the construction of a new parish church and it would be most appropriate for the sacred objects to be used in their new church building.”
However, Rodi left the door open for a different decision to be made.
“In accord with Church law, all the items in St. Joseph Church are now the property of the Cathedral Parish into which St. Joseph Parish has been merged,” he wrote. “The Cathedral Parish leadership will decide the best use of all the sacred objects in St. Joseph Church.”
Members of St. Joseph believe plans to add the church’s sacred objects to a new St. Ignatius building were in the works before parishioners were even notified of the closing. In a March 31, 2017, issue of The Catholic Week, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese, an excerpt taken from the St. Ignatius website confirms that plans were underway “several weeks ago.”
Parishioners said they were notified of the closure on March 23, a bit more than a week before the story was published. One concerned parishioner said plans go back to at least November 2016.
Appeal to Rome
Several church members told Lagniappe they appealed the decision to close the church to the Holy See at the Vatican. Their appeal, called a recourse, argued that the parish should not be merged and the church building should be preserved. Rome ruled in favor of the archbishop’s decision on the consolidation, but, according to the statement, left the door open on the preservation of the building.
“There are some silver linings in Rome’s decision, the most important of which is that the historic church building itself appears to be safe, at least for the time being,” the statement read. “If the archbishop wishes to close the church entirely, he will need to initiate a separate canonical procedure in the future, and in this type of procedure, Rome is not nearly as likely to uphold the archbishop.”
As for the future of the building, Rodi wrote that it has not yet been decided.
“The parish leadership of the Cathedral Parish would need to address this question at the appropriate time,” he wrote. “That is a question for the future.”
Lawsuit filed in Mississippi
This is not the first time a decision from Rodi on the consolidation of parishes has angered churchgoers. Rodi, as bishop in the Biloxi Diocese, was sued by 157 parishioners of St. Paul Catholic Church in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
According to a judgment from the Mississippi Supreme Court, Rodi initially told parishioners of the church affected by Hurricane Katrina that they would be consolidated into a new parish, along with Our Lady of Lourdes parish, called Holy Family parish.
At the time, according to court documents, Rodi told parishioners the new church would have two buildings, one for St. Paul and one for Our Lady of Lourdes. Parishioners of St. Paul church claim with this decree they raised more than $1 million for the repair of the church building.
Rodi later decreed, according to court documents, that the new parish would have one building, to be placed on the site of the former Our Lady of Lourdes church.
In the appeal, parishioners hoped the court would overturn a decision by the Chancery Court of Harrison County, which tossed it on the grounds the state lacked jurisdiction over the decision the bishop made on the consolidation of parishes.
In the appeal, attorney Virgil Gillespie argued the suit, which involved property and a proper accounting of the donations for the new church building, had nothing to do with the bishop’s decision to close the church.
The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancery court’s decision on subject matter jurisdiction, according to the judgment. The court reversed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims of breach of fiduciary duty. The issue was remanded back to the chancery court.
At the time, the Associated Press reported Rodi was “deeply saddened” by the lawsuit and that it was “not in keeping with our understanding of the fundamental nature of the Catholic Church. We are a church, not independent congregations. In faith, worship and practice, we are in union.”
Rodi could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit by press time.
Elizabeth Rossi, a parishioner and architectural historian, called St. Joseph a “gem” and a valuable piece of the city’s history, Spring Hill College history and the history of immigration. The parish was originally founded by Spring Hill College to serve an influx of German immigrants.
Rossi said it’s a “puzzle” to her there isn’t more interest in preserving that history from the city or from the Catholic church itself.
“There have been people who’ve shown concern,” she said. “But you haven’t seen the public reaction you’d expect in a city known for its historical preservation.”
Sally Morris said she doesn’t know where she’ll attend mass in the future, but she can’t bear the thought of not being in the St. Joseph family.
“I think it’s sad,” she said. “Our family was very much a part of the parish.”
Haertel Pritchard said she grew up in the church. The 24-year-old said she had dreamed of one day getting married in the church, where she and her family have spent a lot of time.
“It’s sickening,” she said. “We’ve celebrated, we’ve cried and said goodbye in this church.”
She said Rodi’s decision to close the church has made her “blood boil” and that it has been hard to deal with.
Pritchard said her entire family attends church together. The tradition was to attend church at St. Joseph and eat lunch at her grandmother’s house, and now at her aunt’s house.
“My family is going to have to take a vote on where to attend mass in the future,” she said. “We’ll have to vote to get a general consensus.”