St. Stephen Church supporters appeal latest decree

From staff reports

The decree issued last month by the Erie Catholic Diocese that no longer reserves St. Stephen Church in Oil City for divine worship and allows the building’s to be used for non-religious purposes has been appealed.

Connie Schwabenbauer, the leader of a group of friends and supporters of St. Stephen Church, confirmed to the newspaper that an appeal has been filed.

“We have (filed the appeal),” Schwabenbauer said. “We are trying to save the church.”

An announcement that Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of the Erie Diocese, had relegated St. Stephen, a secondary church of St. Joseph Parish, to “profane but not sordid use,” was made at weekend Masses in Oil City on March 16 and 17 by St. Joseph pastor the Rev. John Miller.

The technical designation of “profane but not sordid use” in the decree refers to the canon law process by which a bishop removes the blessing or consecration of a church building.

The designation is the result of a process that occurs when a pastor, with the support of the parish finance and pastoral councils, believes a church building can no longer be maintained for any of a variety of reasons and petitions the bishop to relegate the church.

Through that process, the building ceases to be reserved for divine worship and therefore can be used for non-religious purposes.

The St. Stephen supporters, led by Schwabenbauer, have previously appealed other actions and decisions made by the diocese over the last several years in their efforts to maintain the church’s status prior to 2020.

Some of their appeals have gone to the highest court in the Vatican.

Persico confirmed Tuesday he has received notice of the appeal and is in the process of responding to it, which is the first step that needs to be taken.

The diocese said that once Persico offers a response, “the person making the appeal will take the next step.”

On Jan. 1, 2020, St. Stephen Parish was merged into Saint Joseph Parish with St. Stephen receiving the status of a secondary mission church.

Last fall, after nearly four years of decisions by St. Joseph Parish and the diocese followed by appeals from the St. Stephen supporters and denials of those appeals, the St. Stephen Church building was reduced to a secondary church without mission status.

That meant there would be no more Masses on Sundays, holy days or the evenings preceding them at St. Stephen.

The diocese has repeatedly cited the costs of repairs to the building as a prominent reason for closing St. Stephen.

The decree last month specifically said that “as a result of several decades of deferred maintenance, the condition of Saint Stephen Church has deteriorated considerably.”

It added that Miller, since becoming pastor in 2017, “oversaw a number of major projects in an attempt to keep the Saint Stephen building safe and usable.”

That work cost the parish $150,141 to complete, “but even with these extraordinary repairs, the condition of the building has continued to worsen leading up to the City of Oil City’s recent building code violation citation,” according to the decree.

A notice in January from Yvonne Greene, Oil City’s director of code enforcement, cited several building code violations with the church property.

Oil City manager Mark Schroyer has said the city is at a standstill when it comes to the church until an updated engineering study the city requested is submitted to the city by the parish.

The diocese said that Miller, recognizing the dire condition of the church and with the unanimous support of both the parish finance and pastoral councils, petitioned Persico to request the St. Stephen relegation to profane but not sordid use.