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Bishop Wuerl gets a rocky reception at Holy Angels

Monday, February 03, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As Bishop Donald Wuerl addressed the congregation inside Holy Angels Church during Mass yesterday, angry parishioners advanced up the center aisle and fired questions at him about the sudden retirement of the Rev. David Crowley.

Michele Rash, far left, and others confront the Rev. Ron Lengwin, Diocesan spokesman, outside Holy Angels Church yesterday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Wuerl abruptly finished speaking. Clearly surprised by parishioners' outspokenness, Wuerl launched into a closing prayer and left the altar as the choir sang the final hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."

Joy seemed absent, but tears, hurt, anger and skepticism could be seen, heard and felt everywhere.

The hostility that brimmed over during the service was evident before the 10:30 a.m. Mass began, when about 200 parishioners gathered outside the church. The protesters wore stickers that said HALO, standing for "Holy Angels Loses Out," and held up signs, cheered when a woman waved a photograph of Crowley and bombarded diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin with questions and complaints.

Donna Szczepankowski paced up and down, carrying a sign that read: "We want answers, Bishop Wuerl!"

"We deserve better than this," said Szczepankowsi, of West Homestead.

Crowley, a burly and beloved Irishman, distributed food, bedding and cash to flood victims in Hays three year ago. He brought many lapsed Catholics back to the church but was known to ignore canon law on matters such as second marriages.

Crowley requested retirement suddenly last month after 34 years at Holy Angels and moved out a week later. This year, he will mark 50 years as a priest and Holy Angels will celebrate its centennial. Crowley, who turns 74 this month, could have stayed on until age 75, when all priests must retire. Priests may request retirement starting at age 70.

Marian Joseph of Baldwin holds a photo of the Rev. David Crowley yesterday as parishoners protest Crowley's sudden retirement from Holy Angels Church. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Crowley called it a normal retirement. But parishioners insisted that, despite health problems, he would not have chosen to retire without preparing them for it.

After receiving numerous letters and e-mails from parishioners concerning Crowley, Wuerl decided to visit the parish. He arrived wearing white-and-gold vestments and as he walked up the steps to the church, was confronted with the crowd chanting "Crowley, Crowley, Crowley."

The smiling bishop told a woman in the crowd that people should be chanting Jesus' name.

"He's as close to Jesus as we know," the woman replied.

Wuerl did not address the issue during his homily, but indicated he would make remarks later.

Wuerl said he had received beautiful letters that were a tribute to Crowley's ministry, and angry ones that showed the depth of feeling about his departure. He said he realized the congregation was facing a "traumatic change." Wuerl denied that priests in nearby parishes resented the large crowds Crowley drew at eight weekend Masses or that those priests pressured him to ask Crowley to retire.

Dolores Krawec of Baldwin Borough apologizes to Bishop Donald Wuerl for the anger expressed by fellow parishioners yesterday during Wuerl's visit to Holy Angels Church in Hays. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"Father Crowley, for reasons of his own, asked to retire," Wuerl said.

At that point some of the people who had been at the rear of the church -- some of whom had indicated that they couldn't hear the bishop -- moved forward up the center aisle.

Wuerl said he hoped that Holy Angels would continue to be a vibrant parish.

"It was!" someone yelled.

"Can you ask him to reconsider, bishop?" said another parishioner.

It was at that point that Wuerl closed the service with a prayer.

As Wuerl greeted parishioners at the back of the church, several directly addressed angry comments to the bishop, others expressed their frustration to each other or to reporters.

"Why the bum's rush?" asked Shirley Rigot of West Mifflin, a parishioner for 34 years. Rigot said she believes Crowley was forced out and did not ask to retire, as Wuerl maintained.

Bob Whiteacre of West Mifflin wondered aloud why the new priest, the Rev. Robert Ahlin, is only available part time, saying that the church needs a full-time pastor.

His wife, Barbara, brushed away several tears.

"This has been my church since I was 5," Barbara Whiteacre said, her voice cracking.

Many people complained about Crowley's hurried exit and the fact that they had no time to organize a farewell party to thank him for his service.

"Our priest deserves the utmost respect and we just feel that this abrupt leaving was not respectful to him. We just feel lost," said Joann Mapleton of Lincoln Place.

Stephanie Paul of Baldwin Borough is a eucharistic minister at Holy Angels and has been a member there for more than 30 years.

"A wolf has slipped into our flock and smote our shepherd down. We are terrified and we are going to scatter," Paul said.

Afterward, Wuerl held an impromptu news conference at the back of the church.

"Would you ask father to come back for us?" a tearful woman asked the bishop. Wuerl did not answer her.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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