Feb. 20-26, 2003
By Adele DelSavio/ SUN contributing writer
OSWEGO — In 2001, when St. John the Evangelist parish was closed, parishioners wondered what would happen to the contents of the church and rectory. Some families had been attending St. John’s for several generations and/or had donated items to the church.
Who is in charge of dealing with the material possessions of a closed parish? Does the diocese have an official procedure in place for that purpose? According to Father James Lang, diocesan vicar for parishes, the Diocese of Syracuse was established by a special act of the New York state legislature. Because of this, it is subject to the state’s religious corporations law and not-for-profit law.
He explained that every parish corporation in the diocese is set up with a group of officers: the pastor, two trustees, the bishop and the vicar general. In order to sell a church’s real property (land and buildings), that group of five people has to vote on a resolution and get a real property assessment.
When it comes to the contents of the buildings, the decision is the pastor’s. “As long as the physical plant is there, it has to be heated. There are ongoing expenses. The pastor has, within certain limits, some ability to put the contents to another use. The income from any sale goes to the parish corporation to pay the ongoing bills until something happens with the physical plant,” Father Lang said.
Father Robert Stephenson has been pastor of St. Mary’s parish, which had been combined with St. John’s, since shortly after St. John’s was closed. It was his responsibility, then, to decide what to do with the closed parish’s possessions. His first step was to bring the sacred vessels, some statues, furniture and other things to St. Mary’s for use or storage.
Some items went to out-of-state churches, according to George Brower, one of the trustees of St. John’s. Most items, he said, are being sold by auction. “There were a couple of sales at the church. I would imagine there are going to be more auctions. I don’t think that everything is gone,” he said. The auctions were held by Syracuse-based Brennan Stained Glass Studio.
Other items went to Brennan’s studio in Syracuse. Why did Father Stephenson choose Brennan? “Because they’re a reputable company. Because I could not see myself going over there [St. John’s] and dealing with people every day to try to sell things,” he said.
Brennan placed an ad in the Syracuse Post-Standard classified section advertising an “historic church and rectory sale” at its studio of items from St. John’s. The sale was to include furniture, miscellaneous items and 12 Victorian stained glass windows.
Through this ad many people from St. John’s found out that the parish’s possessions were being sold. When they heard about it, several members of the Comerford family, whose roots in St. John’s are five generations deep, wrote a letter to the editor of the Oswego Palladium-Times. The letter read, in part, “Our family felt betrayed and saddened to read in a classified ad that the contents and stained glass windows of the church and rectory, donated by parishioners, were being put up for sale….Perhaps they [St. John’s parishioners] could have been notified of the sale and given the opportunity to buy back the cherished items that their families have donated.” Other St. John parishioners expressed similar feelings and wondered why the sale wasn’t advertised in the local newspaper.
Although Father Stephenson declined to comment on the Comerford letter, he did say, “When people donate things, they’re given as a gift to the parish with no strings attached.” On the lack of local publicity, Brower pointed out that Father Stephenson had “left it to Brennan to make the announcements. Why they didn’t publicize it locally, I don’t know. In hindsight, it may have been poor planning on Brennan’s part.” Brennan Stained Glass Studio has not responded to requests for an interview.
“The building has been closed going on two years now. The expenses continue. Nobody came forward to say ‘This is what we’d like.’ I did what I had to do,” Father Stephenson said. Father David Baehr, former pastor of St. John’s and St. Mary’s, commented, “You can’t please everyone. At some point, you need someone to make a decision, but the people need to feel a part of it.” Father Baehr grew up in St. John’s parish.
Vestments, a crucifix, a cross, a wooden baptismal font, statues, votive candle racks, and other items from St. John’s eventually made their way to e-bay, an Internet auction site. The listed sellers of these items on the site were Brennan Stained Glass, in some cases, and private parties in other cases. “I hate to see this happening,” said Father Lang of the e-bay listings. “It’s clear that there needs to be more in writing as the standard operating procedure.”
St. Louis is another Oswego parish that has been closed within the last few years. According to Father Lang, many items from that parish’s church have gone to a church that is being built in Virginia. The church’s organ has gone to St. Joseph’s parish in Camillus. “Father Wurz [the pastor] was very careful with how the contents were handled. They primarily went to churches, including Oswego churches,” explained Father Lang.
“We haven’t taken the closing of these churches lightly. It’s clear to me that the process is still evolving,” Father Lang said.