Parishioners begin vigil in closed Camden Diocese church

A small group of parishioners at a village in southern New Jersey opened 2011 by vowing to maintain a prayerful vigil in their closed church around the clock indefinitely even though they face possible legal action by local authorities.

Leah Vassallo, a parishioner at the closed church, St. Mary Parish in Malaga, in the Camden Diocese, said the vigil began spontaneously over the New Year’s Day weekend after a church door was discovered open.

“It wasn’t planned,” said Vassallo, who is involved in an organization called Save St. Mary’s Malaga. “But when the opportunity was there, we figured it was time to do it.”

The discovery led a handful of parishioners to begin a vigil in the church, which was closed Nov. 9. The closing was discovered when parishioners arrived at the church and found a letter signed by Father Edward Namiotka, recently assigned as pastor, saying the building had been closed.

The letter cited the need to replace a boiler and said that because the church was subject of a merger with two other neighboring parishes, there was no need to keep the building open.

A spokesman for the diocese in Camden, about 30 miles north of Malaga, said local law enforcement and health department authorities would be notified that people were in the building by the end of the day Jan. 3.

“We don’t have any plans at the moment to do anything else,” said Peter Feuerherd, diocesan director of communications.

He maintained that St. Mary continues to exist as a parish and that only the building was closed.

Feuerherd said the appearance of parishioners in the church came as a surprise. But he disputed the claim that the church was open.

“The response of the diocese is that the group entered a locked building,” Feuerherd told CNS. “We don’t know how.”

Parish census data showed that fewer than 200 people attended Mass on weekends and that the parish had accumulated about $250,000 in debt, according to Feuerherd. When the boiler repair came up, the diocese felt it best to close the building, he said.

St. Mary Church is among 58 parishes in the Camden Diocese slated for mergers in a process that began in 2009. The diocese started the process with 124 parishes.

 “The big picture is that the diocese has undergone a consolidation and merger of parishes in the last few years and Malaga is one of those parishes,” Feuerherd said. “This group objected to that whole process.”

The Save St. Mary’s Malaga group said the parish had the funds to cover the cost of the boiler and another $600,000 for maintenance from an estate donated by a parishioner.

Vassallo said the group planned to stay as long as possible.

“I’m not going to say all the details are worked out because they’re not,” Vassallo said.

“We plan to stay as long as it takes. As long as we can be here, we will be here.”