The parishioners sent Bishop George Thomas petitions signed by 300 people asking for salvation for St. Catherine’s. In a letter, they hailed Thomas’ appointment by the pope only days ago as a “miracle” that could come just in time.
“We have prayed for your coming in our time of need,” the letter stated. “We apologize that we need to plead for your time and attention at this very moment, but the situation is grave.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena this past week sold St. Catherine’s, which stands on a beautiful spot overlooking Bigfork Bay, for $1.2 million to the owners of the village’s neighboring Marina Cay Resort. The developers plan to build condos selling for up to $350,000 each on the former church property. Under the diocese’s plan, St. Catherine’s parish will combine with St. Anne’s in Somers, and a new, larger, cathedral-style church for both parishes will be built on the outskirts of Bigfork in a wheat field next to a gravel pit.
The parishioners saw their last, best hope to stop the sale evaporate with the sudden failure of a lawsuit by two widows—Ilene Gembala, 75, and Effie Dockstaeder-Holmes, 94. They contended that they were promised a church in the present location in return for their donations to the building fund in the 1950s and, therefore, the diocese couldn’t legally sell St. Catherine’s without breaking a contract with them.
But when the diocese’s lawyer sent a letter threatening to sue the women for interfering with the sale, they quickly backed down, allowing the church to close on the real-estate transaction.
“I looked at that letter over and over again, and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Peter Leander, the women’s lawyer. “I’ve never seen such a heavy-handed exercise of power. These ladies are elderly widows and can’t afford to defend themselves against the deep pockets of the Catholic Church. They’re frightened. It’s a sad day for the church and the parishioners.”
Now, parishioners have turned to their new bishop. Seattle’s auxiliary bishop since 1999, Thomas succeeds the Rev. Robert Morlino, who worked out the sale of the church before leaving to become bishop in Madison, Wis., last August. Parishioners are offering to raise $1.5 million to buy back their church if their new bishop will intervene.
Their letter claims, “Although we represent the majority of our parishioners, we have been demonized by the leadership and staff of the parish, and even by the office of the bishop…The circumstances are serious here. Harmony does not exist at St. Catherine’s parish.”
It’s easy to understand why many in the 200-family parish wish their church to remain where it is. The building itself is nothing special—a non-descript, ranch-style structure. But it sits in the main village on two hilltop acres with a magnificent view of sparkling Bigfork Bay to the west and the snowy Swan Mountains to the east. A gorgeous weeping willow graces the property, and bald eagles often fly over.
The diocese maintains that Bigfork needs a bigger church building to meet the needs of the parish in fast-growing Flathead County. Under the terms of the sale, the church will lease back the property for $4,000 a month for up to two years until a new $3 million, 500-seat church is built.
“The area has grown dramatically,” said Kevin Phelan, chancellor of the diocese. “We feel terrible that people are being hurt by this. That was never the intention. But the bishop has to provide a reasonable opportunity for Catholics in the area to receive the sacraments.”
The move was approved by a unanimous vote last April by St. Catherine’s steering and finance committee. The sale’s foes say that committee didn’t represent the views of most parishioners.
Anne Murley, whose two sons were altar boys at St. Catherine’s, said the church’s size is only a problem in July and August when Bigfork’s population swells with summer residents. The church could add a building to its present site and buy a parking lot nearby. Most parishioners want their church to stay in the heart of the village, Murley said.
“That church has really been a huge part of our families,” she said. “If we move, it would destroy the whole village atmosphere.”
There’s no word yet on whether the new bishop might intercede. He wouldn’t comment to the Independent. Thomas won’t formally be installed as bishop until June 4.
Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the parish seems likely to be bitterly split for some time. The controversy has divided even the family of Effie Dockstaeder-Holmes. Her son took a public stand against her lawsuit.
“Have the plaintiffs forgotten that the mission of Roman Catholicism is the salvation of souls whether they be in Bigfork or Mother Teresa’s ghettos?” Mike Dockstader wrote in a letter printed in the Bigfork Eagle newspaper. “Do they honestly feel that moving the parish site from the village…will in some way hamper the ability of the Holy see to minister to the people of Bigfork and the surrounding area?”
The parish priest, Monsignor Donald Shea, who favors the move, seems in no mood for compromise. Of those who oppose the sale, he said, “Few of them come to the church…Those who have left have left.
“The church is the people,” he added, “not the building.”