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.”

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7 Responses to Parishioners begin vigil in closed Camden Diocese church

  1. Rose anderson says:

    I’ll be praying for you all…..there’s more to a parish than a building! God be with you my friends.

  2. B Nguyen says:

    Nothing is impossible to GOD. Keep praying and your prayers will be answered!

    Our Father…
    Hail Mary…
    Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…

  3. Iceneedle says:

    It will be interesting to see if the Pastor of St. Mary’s decides to throw out the parishoners. Perhaps he can do it the same way he closed the church by posting a note on the door.

    Yes, the Parish of St. Mary’s is still open, but of course Peter Feuerherd, Diocesean Communications Director, is playing games with the terms of parish and church. Church closed, but the parishioners were not told where, as a parish they could worship. The Pastor of St. Mary’s failed to indicate as a parish, where they could worship.

  4. OnlyTrueSpeech says:

    These people have been congregationalist for quite some time. They have an almost cultic type following of their old pastor, who has been quite venomus towards the Bishop. They also seem to have some separtist leanings. Among the parishioners is a sub-group of homeschoolers who have claimed in the past that neither public nor Catholic schools in the area are good enough for their children- particularly that the Catholic schools aren’t “Catholic enough”. When they are not actively protesting against the Bishop they support the publication of materials on their website that can only be considered libelous. These things are directed at the Bishop and several of his current and former staff and have been posted at various times over the past 2 years.

  5. iceneedle says:

    Should the word Congregationalist inspire fear into Protestancy? Perhaps, if one reviews how the church building was closed, it would shed a cold harsh light as to where the parishoners of St. Mary’s stand with the pastor of the St. Mary’s Parish.

  6. FJM says:

    This is idolatry. The building is not to be worshipped. Obey the bishop’s authority — otherwise you are protestants, pure and simple.

  7. Iceneedle says:

    The parishioners are not worshipping the building. They are thanking God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They are holding a vigil to continue the community and the spirit of the community of fellow Catholics who. The trustees and pastor decided that ends justify the means, just as a business operates or “protestant churches”.

    Perhaps if the Pastor and the Bishop were to have closed St. Mary’s properly, as St. Anne’s in Elmer, there would not be such resentment.

    Its is a shame so many Catholics will fail to accept the Bishop’s challenge of the active laity. They would simply rather be chauvenist provincialates.

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