Earlier this week, the small frame building that had housed St. James the Less Catholic Church in Kansas, Ohio, was demolished. The Diocese of Toledo had contracted with Matt Tille Enterprises of Gibsonburg to raze the building where about 200 Catholics and generations before them had worshipped.
About 10 years ago, the Catholic Diocese of Toledo started assigning pastors to a cluster of two or three small parishes. With a few more than 200 parishioners, St. James was served by the pastor of Millersville St. Mary and Gibsonburg St. Michael. The diocese closed St. James in 2005, citing the lack of enough priests to serve as pastors for all the established parishes and the presence of other churches that could absorb the displaced people of St. James.
Even though St. James members engaged a lawyer, took legal action to regain ownership and staged a 24/7 prayer vigil in the church, the diocese would not reopen the parish. Parishioners were allowed to remove the pews and a few other items. The diocese took ownership of the religious artifacts, including many that had been donated by members of the congregation.
"A lot of stuff they had to take because they called it 'sacred' and 'blessed,' so they wouldn't let us have it," said longtime St. James member Ginny Hull. "We said we would keep it sacred."
Not to be deterred, the St. James members who chose not to join neighboring parishes started meeting for worship in Kansas United Methodist Church. In January 2006, a small group of parishioners met with Bishop Leonard Blair to discuss possible uses for the church. Among the group was Hull. At that time, Hull said parishioners asked to purchase the church from the diocese. The bishop refused to sell it to them unless they would agree not to worship there. They declined.
Although a Baptist congregation had an interest in the building, Hull said Blair would not sell to the Baptists, either. They were told the church could not be used for worship, gambling or "adult" entertainment. The prayer vigil continued two more months until a diocesan representative arrived without warning, ejected a parishioner, locked up the church and posted no trespassing signs. Choir members whose musical instruments were inside were not allowed to retrieve them.
Highlights from the history of St. James
1889 - St. James is established as a mission church of Millersville St. Mary.
1890 - The frame church is completed and dedicated.
1954 - St. James becomes an independent parish.
1989 - Choir gives first performance of "His Last Days," a Lenten musical.
2005 - The parish is declared "suppressed" by Bishop Leonard Blair.
2006 - Parishioners meet with Blair to discuss possible uses for the church.
2010 - Windows and bell are removed from the church. Debris cleared. Christmas Eve Mass scheduled.
For about two years, the church remained untouched. Then parishioners were notified someone would open the building and allow a limited amount of time for people to take out personal belongings they wanted. Hull said she was amazed the guitars and electronic sound equipment were still in working order.
This past fall, the diocese offered to give the 110-year-old frame church to parishioners or to the village of Kansas. Hull said the fire department already had a building, and the village had no resources to maintain the structure.
"They offered it to us about two months ago. They said we could have it if we could take care of it. We could have dances, social events and meetings in there. We said, 'Can we worship in there?' They said no, so we said then we didn't want it. ... They asked us what we wanted done with it, and we said we didn't want someone to make a junkyard out of it, and we didn't want it sitting there ... deteriorating for 20 years. That's when they said they were going to demolish it."
Demolition was the only other option the diocese gave the congregation. Hull said someone already has bid on the property in an effort to keep out undesirable elements. In October, a crew from Toledo removed the stained glass windows. Parishioner Sue Schwab was allowed to go inside and take a few photographs. The diocese did agree to give the church bell to parishioners for the creation of a memorial of some kind. Last Wednesday, Matt Tille Enterprises of Gibsonburg began the demolition by taking down the bell. By Friday, most of the debris had been trucked away.
Hull said it is sad to see the destruction of the church where the faith community had gathered for more than a century and where so many memories were made.
At the same time, she said 45-50 people continue to attend Sunday worship with a priest from Bowling Green. Usually, they meet at the Methodist church.
For Christmas Eve, they are to have Mass at 4 p.m. in Burgoon United Methodist Church. A potluck dinner is to follow the service. Parishioners are asked to bring wrapped baby items to be donated to Heartbeat Pregnancy Support Center of Fremont.
"We aren't any different just because the building is gone. The building's only a building. That's not the community. That's not the church," Hull said. "We still have our community."
Parishioners adopted several local families in 2009, and they have donated to the food pantries in Bettsville and Bradner. Hull questioned who would be helping local families if St. James people transferred to large parishes in Tiffin, Fostoria or Fremont.
"They need churches in this area, not just in the big cities," she said. "Maybe it's going to go back to the way it was in Jesus' time, with little churches in homes."
In late January, Hull is to start practices for "His Last Days." She said she has a waiting list of people who want to book the Lenten drama St. James parishioners have been presenting for 20 years.
Assisting the Rev. Michael Billian, moderator and chancellor for the Diocese of Toledo, and St. James was Patricia Stein, manager of the Catholic Center in Toledo. She explained that her job as caretaker extends to all the structures in the diocese that are not connected to individual parishes. She is responsible for the heating and air conditioning systems, boilers, wiring and other elements needed to operate the buildings.
Part of her responsibilities include removing tabernacles and other sacred articles from closed parishes. She said she did not expect the warm reception she was given in Kansas despite the obvious distress among the members of St. James.
"I was amazed at the people I met there. I didn't know much about the community. ... It was a great experience meeting those people and being invited into their homes," Stein said. "I shared their tears and their stories. It truly changed me."
Stein said she would call to let people know she was coming. When Seneca County condemned the church, the parishioners were given some input on its fate. Stein said they told her it would be better to tear it down than to watch it "die a slow death." They suggested the demolition contractor and stated they wanted the aluminum siding recycled.
The deacon at the Methodist church asked about obtaining the air conditioning system for his church, to which the St. James group agreed. Stein was on hand to oversee the demolition, as well.
"As I was standing there with Fran and Donald and Sue, I was thinking, this physical structure is no longer standing, but the church is still alive in their hearts," Stein said.
The following questions were submitted by e-mail to the Rev. Michael Billian, moderator and chancellor for the Diocese of Toledo. His answers follow each question.
Q. Did other companies besides Tille's bid on the project?
A. When the Diocese does certain work in the communities of our territory, we try to work with local vendors and use the recommendations of the local community members. This particular demolition company was recommended by the residents of Kansas, and their price was very reasonable compared to other demolition work the Diocese has completed.
Q. Was there a specific reason for razing the building, such as to save maintenance costs?
A: The parish house had been condemned by the county and after hearing from the people of Kansas and their readiness to put the parish closing behind them, we consulted them about demolishing the building, since there did not seem to be another use for the building. The local Kansas people told us that they would be happier if the building would be razed then to look at the empty and deteriorating structure. We decided to give them the bell and the top of the church building to be used for a memorial that will be constructed later.
Q. Does the diocese have plans to sell the property?
A. There are local people interested in purchasing the land.
Q. Are any other closed churches in the diocese scheduled to be demolished?
A. There have been other churches demolished in Cuba and North Creek with the possibility of others in the future if uses cannot be found for the structures.
Q. Why couldn't the building be made available to a non-Catholic congregation?
A. At the time we made the offer to have the building used for community use, it was too close to the time of the parish closing and the thought of another denomination using the facility would have been painful for the parishioners.
Comments from St. James parishioners
I haven't ever heard Fr. Billian's take on your question, but his answer demonstrates that he doesn't understand what the building really ever meant to me/us. The building was symbolic of the history of this parish, and was also a matter of principle about what a diocese and bishop is legally allowed to do as an acting trustee. Trust laws were violated by the diocese and if nobody was going to hold them accountable for that, then we felt that burden was on us to hold them accountable. The court, for whatever political reasons used, made their decision, and we continue to be a church. Whether that building is ours, or someone else's, or is destroyed, will never change that.
I love that we have been operating our church independently and have been carrying out our mission to our community. This is a difficult economic time, and communities like Kansas need a church much more than they ever needed that particular building. I wish that the Toledo Diocese would recognize that this is why we feel the "megachurch" concept will ultimately not be a viable way of growing and nurturing the body of Christ. They have gone down the "megachurch" path and appear to be entrenched in that concept. We have chosen another path which keeps the principles of the Catholic faith intact, while not getting bogged down in the political and administrative pitfalls which are consuming the diocese and the bishop at this time. This has unburdened our ability to be Christian stewards in our community during a difficult time.
Sue Schwab said Fran Lucius, whose family contributed lumber for the original church, is going to keep the bell from St. James. She said the fight to keep their parish open has been difficult yet rewarding in some ways.
"It's been a very spiritually awakening process for our parish and individuals. I think we've all learned a lot about what our faith is. You can go through the motions for a lot of years and not really question anything, if you're comfortable. Sometimes, you need a wake-up or a shake up to decide, 'What do I really care about?'" Schwab said.
The bishop and other administrators may not be in touch with the needs of Catholics in small communities such as Kansas, Schwab said. The close bonds among church members are difficult to dissolve. She said they have been doing well as a unit, even though the diocese does not recognize them as a formal parish. As for the fate of the building, Schwab said the diocese wanted to impose many stipulations for its use.
"I think it was such a sore spot. ... I think we caused so much trouble in their minds that we deserved what we got," she said. "I know eventually things are going to change, but it probably will take years and years. The Catholic Church goes in centuries."
Marge and Jim Steinmetz
"The closing and demolition of St. James Catholic Church would be tragic if that was the end, but for Kansas St. James Parish of Ohio, it is only the beginning. This small parish is still alive and playing a big part in the community," Jim said.
Out of curiosity, Marge said she drove past the demolition site Friday to see the crew removing debris and "a huge, gaping hole in the landscape of the town." She believes it's "a sad thing that never should have happened."
"A lot of people are still upset ... We hear from a lot of people out there who are paying attention to what's going (on) and wondering how this is all going to end," Marge said. "Many good Catholic families were deeply wounded by the actions of the Toledo Diocese, and I can't help but wonder how this latest development can possibly encourage people to 'wake up...' This type of action does not portray Christ's love or grace or mercy. The diocese' choice of timing, right before Christmas, for the demolition of a perfectly useful building, seems very cold and uncompassionate to me."
In spite of the emotional ordeal, the Steinmetzes and the remaining parishioners do not want to sever ties with the Catholic Church. Marge said the closure of the parish forced its members to decide whether they wanted to give up or to "dig deeper" and remain together as a community. Like Hull, she mentioned the hospitality of the Methodist church and the charitable projects St. James has been able to maintain. Marge said she feels God is calling them to a new start as a parish independent from the Toledo Diocese. The loss of the church has brought unexpected freedom.
"Along with the deep sadness, there is a real sense of finality and closure to our five-plus years of turmoil," Marge said. "A building does not define us. Yes, we have lost our place of worship, but we have everything else we need. Our Catholic faith is stronger because of the challenges we have endured. We are celebrating Mass together every Sunday. We have been blessed with a wonderful priest and a means to receive the sacraments. We have built new friendships with our Methodist brothers and sisters in town who have so generously welcomed us with open arms and given us full use of their church. We have been able to remain active in our community, ministering in many ways. Kansas St. James is alive and well."