About a year ago, the 121-year old St. James Catholic Church in Kansas, Ohio, was demolished by the Diocese of Toledo after standing empty for more than five years. Although the diocese officially closed the parish and cut ties with the congregation in 2005, a core of church members continued to do outreach projects and to meet weekly for worship at Kansas United Methodist Church and other locations.
This year, parishioners have a church of their own. Although the closing has yet to take place, St. James has drawn up an intent-to-purchase agreement for the Amsden-Rehoboth Methodist Church in rural Fostoria. The St. James congregation met there for the first time Oct. 30 to conduct a prayer service. Their pastor, the Rev. Randy LaFond, celebrated the first Mass Nov. 4 at 9:45 a.m., the regular time for Sunday worship.
"It's good to have a home. ... Of course, Kansas United Methodist Church was really a good neighbor. We can't thank them enough. They're wonderful people," said parish council member Steve Johnson. "We certainly want to continue the good sense of partnership that we built with them over time, but also to not take over their space."
At first, displaced St. James parishioners conducted prayer services and only had Mass and sacraments once a month when a priest from Detroit agreed to come to Kansas.
A building committee had been formed to look for a new home for the parish. Johnson said the group considered buying land and building another church, but zoning regulations, permits and high construction costs seemed unmanageable for the small congregation. The committee thought an existing building would be the best option.
In August, Ginny Hull, a St. James member, got a call from Rehoboth.
"They knew we had been looking, but nothing had worked out." Hull said. "They decided to close because there were just a few people there any more. They closed the end of June."
The parish council and many parish members met at the church for a tour. The prospective owners learned the building had been well-maintained. The original church will be 150 years old in 2013, but the adjacent meeting hall is newer and handicapped-accessible. The church has a metal-embossed ceilingand lots of natural light, and its curved pews seat about 140 people. The space is large enough for the St. James congregation to worship and to rehearse for the Lenten musical, "His Last Days."
The remaining members of Rehoboth wanted their building to remain a church. It did need a new heating system, so they offered an affordable price on the property. The parish council sought approval from the St. James congregation before making a decision to buy the church. It is located at 6482 W. CR 28, Fostoria, about seven miles from Kansas.
"Everybody was willing to drive, and it really feels like home to us. ... We've very happy there," Hull said.
After a Fostoria newspaper ran a story about St. James' purchase, Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo diocese issued a letter dated Nov. 7. In the letter, Blair called St. James' split from the diocese "the grave offense which is called schism." Copies of the letter were distributed at St. Wendelin Church in Fostoria Nov. 10 and 11.
Last Sunday, St. James parishioners gathered after worship for coffee. The bishop's letter generated much discussion about policies and recent scandals in the Catholic Church. They were not concerned that the diocese does not recognize their pastor, the Rev. Randy LaFond, a Franciscan priest. The general consensus was that breaking ties with Toledo and finding a place to call their own seemed like the right to do.
"We don't have 'Catholic' in our name but we are continuing in the Catholic tradition," Hull said. "We feel we are doing the right thing, and we're willing to live with it."
Hull said the group may have a dedication service when all the paper work is completed. Collection boxes in the church are evidence of the group's outreach efforts to help needy families and food pantries. Those efforts never stopped after the diocese closed the parish, and the sense of a religious community could not be extinguished. Parishioners point out that much of the Catholic Church's Canon Law was written by humans, not God.
"Even when we didn't have Mass, and we just passed bread, doing that in communion with the people that are here, to me, elevated it to a level that we were sharing the same bread that Christ did with the apostles," Hull said. "To me, it's in your heart."
St. James member Mark McGinnis said parishioners have supported his family for years with prayers, financial help and moral support, especially when his little boy died several years ago. During a recent hospitalization, parishioners brought him a prayer shawl and visited with him.
"If these people aren't Christian, I don't know who is," he said.