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Battle over ownership of church divides town

Sunday, April 02, 2000

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CLYMER, Pa. -- John Berezansky has spent all of his 58 years in this lean-times Indiana County coal town. And he has spent almost all of it in the ranks at St. Michael's Orthodox-Greek Catholic Church.

St. Michael's is the yellow-brick building a block up the hill from the main street -- 70-some years old but not looking it, lifting its onion-shape stainless steel cupolas and their Byzantine crosses to peer across this town of modest homes and 1,500 people.

Berezansky was baptized at St. Michael's. He was confirmed and married there. He was a church trustee. His two children were baptized there.

And now, he is gone, one of 14 members excommunicated in a bitter, two-year struggle that began with a failed attempt to fire the parish priest and escalated into a battle over who controls the parish -- the congregation or the diocese.

The fight has broken the 190-member congregation in two. The diocese shut down the church for six months. The breakaway faction -- the majority, its members say -- changed the church house locks to try to thwart the diocese, then formed a new parish, under a different church.

And now, the combatants are locked in litigation for a second year. Three weeks ago, a panel of three Commonwealth Court judges ruled that the diocese indeed controlled St. Michael's. But the decision was just another twist, not a resolution. Breakaway members appealed immediately, and both sides say the fight is nowhere near finished.

"We have families that are split, brothers and sisters, friends who aren't talking to each other," Berezansky said.

"Everyone in the town is aware of it," said Michael Vaporis, an Indiana, Pa., lawyer representing the diocese. "In a little town like Clymer, that means it comes down to who do you support, who's going to go to whose chicken dinner."

At St. Michael's, worship goes on as scheduled. The sign board out front reminds of the fish dinner coming up Friday. The church retains an active membership of 50, parish member Dan Kapcoe said.

A mile-and-a-half outside town, past a cattle farm, in a truck garage that officially became a church four months ago, the congregation-in-exile keeps its own worship schedule and claims 80 members. It, too, is St. Michael's -- albeit St. Michael's Mission Church, now aligned with The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and worshipping under the Rev. George Mitchell, a priest dispatched from a parish in California, Pa.

Mitchell figures "a little more than half" of the congregation from the Clymer church is now attending the mission church. Vaporis estimates it at 40 percent to 50 percent. Whatever the numbers, "there's very little chance for reconciliation," said Indiana lawyer Thomas Bianco, representing the breakaway group.

In the end, the stakes will amount to which faction will control the church building and which will have to go somewhere else.

"It's like a breakup in the family," Kapcoe said. "There's no one in this town who doesn't know it's happening."

"You know what's happened. You try to mind your business," said a member of another church, who asked not to be named. "You have friends on both sides."

On Thursday, both sides were back in Indiana County Common Pleas Court where Judge William Martin was considering a contempt of court order against breakaway members charged with holding back on remaining church funds and refusing to pay the church's pastor, the Rev. Robert Salley.

Martin drew a compromise by ordering the breakaway group to give back the $39,200 certificate of deposit and call that prong of the case closed.

Then, satisfied, both factions left the courtroom -- without exchanging words.

St. Michael's is an American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, part of a Johnstown-based diocese of 75 churches and about 15,000 parishioners across much of the eastern United States.

And that's how it's been for 65 years, since the church -- then 28 years old and incorporated as The Greek Catholic Church of Clymer -- broke ties with the Byzantine Catholic Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and joined the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox diocese, falling under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

The current clamor has drawn attention across this swath known as Two Lick Valley, about nine miles northeast of Indiana, Pa. But this is a church where parishioners already knew how to squabble their way to court.

In 1965, dissident members, arguing that the parish had been improperly taken away from the Byzantine Catholic Archdiocese, fought all the way to the state Supreme Court. There, they were told that it was too late, three decades after the fact, to raise the issue.

This time, after years of simmering disputes, the road to court was officially opened in July 1998, when the church board voted 14-1 to fire Salley, their parish priest of 28 years. Salley and his wife -- Orthodox priests can marry -- were to be evicted from the church rectory.

"There was a lack of effectiveness on his part," Berezansky said. "We were losing parishioners."

"They didn't feel they wanted to pay the priest what he was worth," said Kapcoe, the lone holdout vote. "They thought they could get a young priest for less."

Salley and diocesan chancellor the Rev. Frank Miloro, citing the ongoing litigation, refused comment.

The diocese -- overseen by a bishop carrying the Orthodox title of metropolitan -- said it had final say over Salley's tenure. And Metropolitan Nicholas, a priest at St. Michael's for two years in the early 1970s, declared that the church board had no right to fire Salley.

The power struggle officially was under way.

A month after the church board voted to fire Salley, the diocese was in Indiana County Common Pleas Court, winning preliminary injunctions that kept Salley in his job -- where he remains -- and barring anyone from taking the pulpit without the metropolitan's authorization.

But the parish already was reeling.

Nicholas quickly excommunicated the 14 board members who voted to fire Salley. "That's what diocesan law commands for causing a schism," said Vaporis, the attorney for the diocese, himself the son of a Greek Orthodox priest.

"We were told the excommunication would be lifted if we'd go to the diocese in Johnstown and pray for forgiveness," said Fred Knapik, one of the 14. "Well, we didn't have anything to pray for forgiveness for."

Before Christmas 1998, the diocese closed the church and kept it closed for four months. "The bishop said, 'Until you settle down and worship as a congregation, there won't be any services,' " Kapcoe said.

But at one point, breakaway members went the diocese one better, changing the church locks, before being ordered to grant the diocese access to the church. "We wanted the church closed to everyone," Knapik said.

From court, St. Michael's would be told that church board members' terms had expired and that a new parish election would have to precede any attempt to oust Salley. The key part of the court proceedings, though, would orbit around who really has final control over the parish.

"The decision is made on points of law -- deeds, trusts, things of this nature," said Gene Goldenzeil, a Scranton attorney for the breakaway group. "You don't decide in America who the right religion is."

Indiana Common Pleas Judge William Martin ruled last year that the congregation controlled the parish. The church board had presented him with a copy of the parish bylaws -- passed in 1984 but never approved by the diocese -- declaring that the parish held the right "to adhere to or to revoke denominational affiliation at any time."

The church board backed up that argument by showing church property had been deeded to the parish, not to the diocese.

"In reality, the people were showing up for church and paying their dues to the diocese," said Bianco, co-counsel for the breakaway group. "But they kept affirming, 'We are independent.' The bylaws show they made every attempt to remain independent."

But Commonwealth Court Judges Bernard McGinley and Dan Pellegrini and Senior Judge Samuel Rodgers ruled three weeks ago that the diocese, not the congregation, held control at St. Michael's.

Long before the church board approved bylaws allowing it to leave the diocese, it had accepted diocesan rule -- paying dues, accepting the assignment of priests and working smoothly with the hierarchy, Pellegrini wrote in his opinion.

The parish's 1984 bylaws were rendered invalid because they conflicted with the diocese's own 1973 constitution and were never accepted by the diocese, Pellegrini reasoned.

That meant that St. Michael's "cannot secede from the diocese and, accordingly, must carry out its affairs in accordance with diocesan governance," Pellegrini wrote.

Goldenzeil has filed to have the full Commonwealth Court hear the case.

That's in the future.

For now, the churches have spiritual matters to attend to.

At dusk one night last month, the first cars were arriving at St. Michael's Mission Church -- the former truck garage -- for an evening Lenten service.

From the outside, it looked as if they had come to the wrong place. There was an 18-inch wood Byzantine cross attached to one door, beneath a sign reading, "St. Michael's Mission Church." But this was a worn, faded prefab metal building with garage doors big enough to swallow a dump truck.

Inside, though, Mitchell, the parish priest, gave a quick tour through his 30-by-75-foot truck bay-cum-church, past the altar and sanctuary, under the new track lights, over the newly laid carpet, past the rows of 80 or so folding chairs.

There'd been a drainage pit in the middle of the truck bay; it's covered now by boards and carpets. "The place is modest," said Mitchell, who is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, graying, bearded and, after three decades, still carrying a slice of accent from his native Australia. "But here, in this place, the people are free of the old tensions."

By most accounts, those old tensions won't be erased by a sudden easing of hostilities or a major legal victory. By Bianco's reckoning, the fight will be resolved in detente -- and only when everybody's tired of fighting.

"In my opinion, there'll come a point where somebody decides we can't fight about this another two years, three years, four years," Bianco said.

"The decision will be: Will the financial resources go instead into building a church."

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