Sunday, May 23, 1999

Renovations divide church

Parish group fights changes ordered by archdiocese

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Father George Kunkel is heading renovation to modernize St. Martin.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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        Everyone at St. Martin of Tours Church in Cheviot agrees that the 1923 Romanesque building is an architectural gem.

        But when it comes to the Catholic church's marble altar and intricately painted sanctuary, the agreements end.

        A small group of parishioners protesting changes to the church's interior has brought in the Vatican and threatened a civil lawsuit, all to halt renovations that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati says are necessary.

        The controversy illustrates how, more than three decades after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics still disagree over how to carry out the council's reforms.

St. Martin renovations
        “These things were called for many years ago and they're only starting to be implemented now because change occurs slowly in the Catholic church,” says Bryan Froehle, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “It's not as if it's a debate about change in the church. It's a change that has long since happened.”

        “Usually people quote the document that supports their point of view. That's what we do,” counters Charles Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation in San An tonio, which has been advising the St. Martin protesters on church law. “Church law doesn't go into a lot of particulars on renovation. ... The (Second Vatican) council was laying down general principles, not laying down recipes for what we have to do.”

        The work at St. Martin's began several months ago and will continue through August. The congregation is worshipping in its new parish center while the church is draped in scaffolding, new paint, refurbished pews and broken marble from the removed communion rail.

        The Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy declined to stop the renovation, although it did say the pastor, the Rev. George Kunkel, was correct in offering refunds to unhappy parishioners. The protesters are appealing to the Signatura Apostolica, the Catholic Church's supreme court.

        “We'll see this through to the end,” says Michael Hendley, a Westwood design engineer who is heading up the St. Martin Preservation Committee, the group opposed to the renovations. “If we can get them to stop work — we don't feel the Congregation for the Clergy acted on our whole appeal.”

        The current controversy at St. Martin's goes back to 1996, when Father Kunkel began raising funds for the new parish center and to “restore the interior of the church to its past splendor.” By the summer of 1997, the parish capital campaign had raised about $1.2 million.

        Sue Hendley, Michael Hendley's wife, was a volunteer in the capital campaign, supervising solicitors who went door-to-door to St. Martin's 2,400 families.

        After the parish center's groundbreaking in May 1998, talk turned to the church interior. Father Kunkel says he took the preliminary plans to the archdiocese. But instead of approving the plans, the archdiocesan committee detailed changes to be made.

        “They made it clear, certain things they'd like to see done, like the communion rail taken down, the tabernacle moved to a separate space for prayer, that the main focus for our Mass is the altar,” Father Kunkel says.

        “I knew with common sense what the parish reaction would be, especially when it came to moving the tabernacle, and they insisted that's how it would be.”

        The tabernacle holds the communion bread that a priest has already blessed. Since Catholics believe that the bread becomes the body of Jesus Christ when it is consecrated, the tabernacle is often an object of adoration. It also holds the bread for the sick and homebound.

        Since at least the 16th century, tabernacles in Catholic churches have routinely been placed at the center of the high altar, as St. Martin's had done. Since Vatican II, many churches have moved their tabernacles to a side chapel or separate altar.

        Supporters say that the tabernacle and the private devotion it invites can distract from the consecration that the priest performs during the Mass.

        “The purpose of the church is to make Eucharist, to do Eucharist. It's a verb, not a noun, it's something that you do,” says the Rev. Larry Tensi, director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship who grew up attending St. Martin.

        “We only reserve the Sacrament (in the tabernacle) for the sick and for private devotion. Since those are two different dynamics, they can't be on the same plane. You have to have separate sacred space.” He adds that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal requires a separate altar for the tabernacle.

        But opponents say that moving the tabernacle discourages devotion and marginalizes the presence of Jesus in the church. They say the general instruction has been superseded by later canon law.

        “The tabernacle in which the most holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer,” says Mr. Wilson, quoting canon law.

        “Our argument is that the tabernacle should be located in that part of the building reserved for sacred worship. It should be in a place seen by most if not all of the people there.”

Taken by surprise
        Father Kunkel's hunch about the reaction of some parishioners to the changes was correct. Mr. Hendley lis tened with dismay and a sense of alarm to the priest's Nov. 15 homily, in which he explained the renovations that would start in a few weeks.

        “The main thing was that people felt deceived, and they were heartbroken their money was going to destroy the church now,” Mr. Hendley says. “I think what should have been done morally is to refund the money as soon as there was a change in the wind and then start new fund-raising. That's what people were angry about.”

        Father Kunkel brought the Rev. Larry Mick, an expert in liturgy, to St. Martin the following week to explain the need for the changes. Members of the newly formed preservation committee handed out fliers asking people to come to a meeting that afternoon. Father Kunkel estimates that 150 people were there, and 70 to 80 percent of them opposed the changes.

        The committee first took its case to Father Kunkel, and then to the Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk, archbishop of Cincinnati. When those attempts to halt the renovations failed, they retained a canon lawyer in Rome, consulted with the St. Joseph Foundation and petitioned the Vatican in December.

        The petition, made on behalf of 52 people, centered on a church law that prevents money collected for one purpose to be used for another.

        On Feb. 2, with the renovation work under way, Father Kunkel met with Archbishop Pilarczyk, who instructed the priest to offer a return of donations to anyone who felt deceived. An announcement ran in the bulletin two consecutive Sundays in February. Father Kunkel says that 19 people who had donated $27,000 asked for their money back.

        Mr. Hendley says about $51,000 has been returned.

        On March 30 the Vatican issued a proclamation saying that the plans had indeed changed and the allegation had merit, although there was no deception involved. It added that Father Kunkel's offer fixed the problem, and it declined to stop the renovations.

        A decision from the Apostolica Signatura could take years, and Archbishop Pilarczyk has refused to hold up the work pending the appeal. The first weddings are scheduled to begin in a few weeks, and the archbishop will dedicate the church in August.

        The Hendleys are no longer attending Mass at St. Martin, although their son still attends the school.

        “I love the church. I love the school. But I guess you vote with your feet, and I'm still active in organizations in the school,” Mrs. Hendley says. “I'm saddened in our heart of hearts that we can't go there.”

        Father Kunkel, meanwhile, is pleased with the progress of the church. The ceiling, walls and mural behind the sanctuary have been repainted. The spot for the tabernacle, to the right of the main altar, is ready, and the tabernacle itself is being polished. The marble from the communion rail lies in piles near the altar, but soon it will decorate the sanctuary in a different form.

        “I think (the work) is what we need to do,” Father Kunkel says. “No one wants to be unpopular. The archbishop asked me to do this, the archdiocese asked me to do this. It will make the worship space better.”


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