By Dan Yount

The Cincinnati Herald

     St. Anthony Catholic Church in the community of Madisonville, which serves a predominantly African American neighborhood, has long been recognized as one of the most diverse parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati or other faith congregations in the region. Since the 1980s, there has been a strong African American cultural motif, with the altar decorated in cultural cloth including Kente cloth, African American spirituals and hymns coming from the choir, the playing of drums at some Masses, participation of parishioners in the Parish Pastoral Council and in other decision-making bodies, and with laity as lectors in the Sacred Liturgy.

      At one time Blacks accounted for about 20 percent of the parish. The church also welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community.

       Members from 50 local ZIP Codes worshiped there. The church was filled for worship and other events; it offered a number of social justice services to the community, local, national and international speakers brought different messages to the congregation; and the church has a twinning association with a Catholic church on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

       The church has an active peace and justice committee. A church contingent helped stabilize the financial situation at the Madison Villa Senior Apartments and was a founding church for Madisonville Education and Assistance Center (MEAC).

        During those times, the church grew to 400 to 500 families and was thriving.

        Today, membership is dwindling, and not because of the coronavirus scare. Blacks now make up only 13 percent of the membership. Both Black and White members have left for other parishes. Some numbers who are still there say they are considering leaving.

       Anthony of Padua, for whom the church was named, was a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order. He is also the patron saint of lost things.

        In recent years, a number of parishioners at St. Anthony in Madisonville say the have lost the church they had loved. 

What happened

       While a dispute between laity and the church’s new priest, the Rev. Jamie Weber and the Archdiocese’s hierarchy has been on going for several years, the disagreements were made public within the last two weeks as a 60-member group of parishioners, saying they were not being listened to as changes have been made, placed paid advertisements about their situation in this newspaper and The Cincinnati Enquirer. They say the ads were a last effort to mourn the church as they treasured it. For parishioners, the options are slim.

             A statement released to the Herald by the Archdiocese in response to the situation at St. Anthony, follows: “Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr fully supports Fr. Weber in his ministry as pastor of St. Anthony Parish. Fr. Weber has worked closely with the Parish Council at St. Anthony Parish while carrying out his functions as pastor, of teaching, sanctifying and governing.”

          Basically, much of the disagreement is over the stripping the African American cultural heritage from the church, the pull back of previously implemented Vatican II reforms and a reversion to Catholic conservatism, members said. 

        The advertisements, which drew over 70 positive emails from outside the parish, was written in the form of a eulogy, opening with:

     “We are saying goodbye to our beloved St. Anthony Church Community. That is not to say that the Parish is not still there and staffed, but the community we have known for decades is gone.  We are taking a moment in time now to acknowledge that, commemorate what we have lost, and say goodbye.’’

       Four St. Anthony parishioners, who have each been associated with the church for about 30 years, were interviewed for this article.

      One, Gloria Parker-Martin, is an African American woman who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Cincinnati.

      She said, “When I walked in and saw the Kente cloth banners flying from the wall, I knew I had found a church for me.’’ 

       Parker-Martin had been a member of the largely Black parish of St. Agnes Church in Bond Hill, but was seeking more diversity. She knew the Rev. George Jacquenin, a former pastor of Mother of Christ Church, when he became pastor of St. Anthony, and she visited the Church. 

      Fr. Jacquenin was pastor at St. Anthony for 13 years and supported the diversity. The Rev. Len Wenke, who followed him, supported the church practices during his 13-year ministry there, before being called to an administrative position. The Rev. Dave Lemkuhl recently served as pastor for 6 years. The Rev. Jamie Weber, who was the pastor at St. Cecilia Church in Oakley was assigned in July 2016 named pastor of the new Eastside Pastoral Region now composed of St. Anthony, St. Cecilia and St. Margaret St. John. 

     I felt as if I had come home

    Kay Brogle said she was looking for a more spirited church in the late 1980s when she walked into St. Anthony. “I walked by three or four welcoming greeters. The choir rocked. I loved the community and way the church operated, with the laity involved.  Catholic social teaching was a tradition, and parishioners were encouraged to get involved in social justice issues. I felt as if I had come home.” 

Brogle added, “It seems like an unraveling of all the traditions and style of worship that we had, which was pretty powerful. People came from all over the city because of our strong community and Eucharistic celebration. We celebrated our diversity, culture and spirituality to promote inclusion, understanding and living the Gospel.  We wanted to stay simple and not get into the gold and symbols (that one sees at other Catholic churches).’’

        Sally VonLehman, said she and her young family had been members of a much larger parish, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Coming from a small town, the family found support at the smaller St. Anthony, she said. “We not only felt at home, but that we were with real people of all different kinds,’’ she added.

      Robert Ehrsam, who was also interviewed, said he moved to Cincinnati in 1986 and was referred to St. Anthony. He said he was moved by the liturgy, diversity and social justice initiatives. Now, he says, the inside appearance and order of the Mass are no longer inviting to people of color.

      Ehrsam said someone asked if we could put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of church in support of the recent protests, but the request was denied by the pastor. 

      “We also wanted to have a tribute to the late Civil Rights leader Rep. John Lewis, but that was denied because he supported women’s rights and did not oppose abortion,” Ehrsam said. “These are some of the things that caused us to run the ads. We have tried everything we could do, even hiring a mediator.”

       He and three other parish representatives met with Archbishop Dennis Schnurr last September to request a move to a more compatible region but produced no success. 

       Recently, a White woman relieved Parker-Martin from her duties on a committee that was in charge of church decoration. Ironically, Parker-Martin said, it was a White woman who started the Black inclusion in the decoration at the church. Fr. Weber has reportedly told the scheduler to remove the names of everyone who signed the advertisement from ministry in the church and they are not allowed in the sanctuary, this includes lectors, Eucharist ministers and choir members, Parker-Martin said. The priest has not called a Worship Commission meeting since February. 

      VonLehman said Fr. Wenke, who lived in Madisonville when he was pastor and was involved in the community, saw a dwindling priesthood and began creating a system that would involve more laity in the development of the vision and goals of the future church and to assist in its administration. Apparently, giving the laity this power became a concern for the local church hierarchy, and the hierarchy is seeking to change that, Ehrsam added.

       Brogle, who said she has no problems with Catholicism, says she wants options. “I am broken hearted about possibly leaving my St. Anthony Community. This has become my family, and we all want to stay connected. We are rooted in the Gospel and a community of people with shared values. It is hard to find place where diversity is so fully embraced, where all are welcome.’’

       Ehrsam said similar battles in Catholic churches and dioceses are going on across the country, according to the emails and other reports they have been receiving. Several of those emails of support were from Archdiocesan clergy.

       Parker-Martin said she is just speculating on a possible explanation for what has happened at St. Anthony. She surmises that since Fr. Weber comes from St. Cecilia, which is a White parish and growing, St. Cecilia may eventually need an overflow church, and that church could be St. Anthony. Perhaps St.  Anthony would have to be converted to a White, European-appearance for that White overflow group as well as the White upper middle class newcomers to Madisonville where gentrification is occurring to the detriment of the displaced long-time modest income, Black and White Madisonville residents. Father Weber has specifically stated that he wants to evangelize by targeting the Madisonville newcomers as potential new members of St. Anthony (without mentioning a need also to reach out to the long-time Madisonville residents).   

        Several of those interviewed said they thought that to some of the ordinated clergy, the Vatican II reforms may have given too much power to the laity and this has caused the push backs experienced in the parishes, similar to that experienced previously by the U.S. women religious congregations.

Fr. Weber’s response

         In a letter to the parishioners of St. Anthony and was inside the church bulletin Sunday, Weber advised them that:

       “We are all aware that some of our members of our parish community paid to have a half page ad run for four days in the Cincinnati Enquirer (and The Cincinnati Herald) announcing the demise of our parish. The ad was filled with emotion and some unfortunate misunderstandings about the Archdiocese, our parish and the Church in general. There are no real winners in these kinds of situations. The disunity of the community of believers is a sad and tragic scandal. As disciples of Christ, we are called to charity, forgiveness and understanding. Even this Sunday’s Gospel speaks to us as to how we should resolve our problems and our differences.

     “As your Pastor who values your faithfulness and your willingness to follow the Lord within the Church and according to the spirit and the teachings of the Gospel, I would like to reassure you that St. Anthony’s parish is alive and well in Madisonville. We have not only a great challenge ahead of us as Madisonville grows and changes but also a wonderful opportunity to move forward together. Our mission is always a joyful evangelical mission to bring Christ into our neighborhoods and onto the streets where our people live. We welcome and deeply appreciate all of you who have remained parishioners. I invite the whole community to join with me and the priests who assist me as, together, we engage in our Madisonville mission of faithfulness to the Church and obedience to the Gospel.

         “It’s important for us to be reminded that there is no private interpretation of the second Vatican Council. It was an act of the whole Church and the whole Church is its only authentic interpreter. 

          “I certainly have examined myself in all this and acknowledge my own short comings and mistakes, but these human weaknesses never, in my years as a priest, created such a barrier to interpersonal dialog and mutual respect. It surprised me and certainly disappointed me. I pray that this experience will make all of us more willing to work together. Those who publicly disagreed with our mission and our evangelical direction, have bid us good-bye. They should be in our prayers.

      “This is a bittersweet moment in our parish story. but now is the time to look forward and not backward, to look up in hope and to recommit ourselves to the mission given to us by Christ. I am encouraged and grateful for your faithfulness and your acceptance of me as your pastor. I am blest to be here.

In Christ,

Father Jamie

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