News Local news A Latin Mass com­mu­ni­ty moved in. Then wrecked a his­toric Vat­i­can II altar

A Latin Mass com­mu­ni­ty moved in. Then wrecked a his­toric Vat­i­can II altar

Parishioner Bob Purgert looks at one of the damaged pedestals of the dismantled altar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Cleveland. (Dennis Sadowski)

Parish­ioner Bob Purg­ert looks at one of the dam­aged pedestals of the dis­man­tled altar at St. Eliz­a­beth of Hun­gary Church in Cleve­land. (Den­nis Sadowski)

BY DENNIS SADOWSKI

Shak­ing his head, Bob Purg­ert tilt­ed one of the pedestals that sup­port­ed the top of what is now a dis­man­tled altar, stored in an unheat­ed hall on the prop­er­ty of his beloved St. Eliz­a­beth of Hun­gary Church in Cleve­land’s eco­nom­i­cal­ly strug­gling Buck­eye neighborhood.

He showed a vis­i­tor the cast­ers under the pedestal that allowed for the altar to be rolled aside for spe­cial events. Chipped and splin­tered wood could be seen atop and along the sides of the pedestal, a sec­ond one next to it and the altar top rest­ing on a table nearby.

“They did­n’t have to do this,” a dis­ap­point­ed Purg­ert, 71, said of the dam­aged altar. Parish­ioners are deeply proud of the altar, which parish priest Fr. Julius Zahorszky built in 1966 to accom­mo­date the litur­gi­cal reforms of the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Council.

Hun­gar­i­an Car­di­nal József Mind­szen­ty cel­e­brat­ed Mass at the altar dur­ing a 1974 vis­it to the parish. Pope Fran­cis declared the car­di­nal, who resist­ed Hun­gary’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment after World War II, ven­er­a­ble in 2019, mak­ing the altar a sec­ond-class rel­ic if he is can­on­ized a saint.

“They did­n’t have to do this,” Purg­ert repeat­ed. “They could have moved the altar. They could have moved it to the vestibule if they did­n’t want to see it, and then it could be moved back for wed­dings or funer­als for our parishioners.”

Purg­ert’s ire is focused on the Chica­go-based Insti­tute of Christ the King Sov­er­eign Priest, which since July has been estab­lish­ing its pres­ence at St. Eliz­a­beth for Latin Mass adher­ents. The group cel­e­brat­ed its first Latin Mass at the shrine on Sept. 24.

Estab­lished by French priests in 1990 in Gabon, the insti­tute is a group of priests devot­ed to pro­mot­ing the Latin Mass as it was said before the coun­cil’s reforms. In the Unit­ed States, it is present at 23 loca­tions in 13 states.

Parish­ioners, some with roots extend­ing to the 1892 estab­lish­ment of St. Eliz­a­beth as the first parish in the West­ern Hemi­sphere for the Hun­gar­i­an dias­po­ra, are becom­ing increas­ing­ly con­cerned that the insti­tute is sidelin­ing their her­itage and any con­nec­tion with the novus ordo.

“They were sup­posed to leave the place alone, ask per­mis­sion if they want­ed to do any­thing in regards to revamp­ing the church, chang­ing things, mov­ing things, giv­ing things away, throw­ing things out,” parish­ioner Mark Yonke, 57, said. He not­ed that the church is on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places and is rec­og­nized by the Cleve­land Land­marks Commission.

Parish­ioner Mary Spisak, 90, who lived near the parish for years and now lives with her son in sub­ur­ban Mace­do­nia, Ohio, was among those incensed by the insti­tute’s actions. She wrote a let­ter to the dio­cese ask­ing for an explanation.

“I’m very dis­cour­aged and dis­gust­ed at what these peo­ple are doing,” Spisak said.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Cleveland (Dennis Sadowski)

St. Eliz­a­beth of Hun­gary Church in Cleve­land (Den­nis Sadowski)

Parish­ioner Lajos Karác­sony, 60, who arrived from Hun­gary in 1995 and became a U.S. cit­i­zen in 2002, said he was “both con­cerned, upset” by the actions tak­en by the insti­tute with­out consultation.

He recalled a meet­ing last sum­mer among parish­ioners and Fr. Matthew Talari­co, the insti­tute’s provin­cial supe­ri­or from Chica­go, who “pre­sent­ed a very nice pro­gram” on the group’s plans for the shrine. “We agreed on every­thing,” he said.

Now, Karác­sony is not so sure, say­ing, “I’m won­der­ing what these guys are doing.”

It’s not just the dis­man­tling of the altar that has upset long-stand­ing parish­ioners. In addi­tion to Spisak, at least four oth­er St. Eliz­a­beth mem­bers have writ­ten to the dio­cese seek­ing an expla­na­tion about steps such as mov­ing stat­ues and ban­ners that are sym­bols of Hun­gar­i­an her­itage; cov­er­ing a carv­ing of the Last Sup­per on the main altar; relo­cat­ing the bap­tismal font from the sanc­tu­ary to a side vestibule; and mov­ing Eng­lish and Hun­gar­i­an lan­guage sacra­men­tary prayer books and con­tem­po­rary priest vest­ments to seclud­ed areas.

The changes, they said, were under­tak­en with­out noti­fi­ca­tion as they under­stand was part of the agree­ment with the dio­cese that allowed the insti­tute to locate at St. Eliz­a­beth and for the parish to merge with anoth­er Hun­gar­i­an Catholic com­mu­ni­ty across town.

“What I don’t think peo­ple under­stand is this is the moth­er church of Hun­gar­i­ans when we came to Amer­i­ca. … This is where it start­ed. So, this has become like Ply­mouth Rock,” said Purg­ert, whose grand­moth­er grad­u­at­ed from eighth grade in the parish school in 1914, fol­lowed by his moth­er in 1944.

Bish­op’s ‘instruc­tion’

Cleve­land Bish­op Edward Malesic for­mal­ly wel­comed the insti­tute to the dio­cese in an “instruc­tion” issued July 28, 2023. At the time, he also announced that the for­mer St. Eliz­a­beth of Hun­gary Parish on the city’s East Side would merge with anoth­er Hun­gar­i­an parish, St. Emer­ic, on the Cleve­land’s near West Side.

The merg­er, he said, became nec­es­sary as Mass atten­dance at St. Eliz­a­beth had declined for years.

St. Eliz­a­beth Church, Malesic decid­ed, would become a shrine where the insti­tute’s priests could cel­e­brate the Latin Mass for Catholics who desired a place to wor­ship under the old rite.

Malesic’s announce­ment spec­i­fied that the shrine would con­tin­ue to pro­mote “the Chris­t­ian her­itage of the Hun­gar­i­an peo­ple as well as for divine wor­ship accord­ing to the litur­gi­cal books in use pri­or to the reform of 1970.”

Parishioner Mark Yonke (Dennis Sadowski)

Parish­ioner Mark Yonke (Den­nis Sadowski)

Yonke, 57, whose grand­par­ents appear in pho­tos of parish orga­ni­za­tions from 1904 in a muse­um in the church base­ment, said oppo­si­tion to the insti­tute’s actions is not root­ed in hav­ing the Latin Mass in the church. Rather, he explained, it is how the insti­tute, under rec­tor Fr. James Hooger­w­erf — who uses the title “canon,” as the insti­tute des­ig­nates its priest lead­ers — is going about remak­ing the church and the rec­to­ry with no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with parish­ioners or Fr. Richard Bona, pas­tor of the merged parish.

For exam­ple, the insti­tute in March began ren­o­vat­ing the rec­to­ry. Dur­ing a recent vis­it to allow researchers from Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty to review parish archives housed in the rec­to­ry, Yonke found the locks to the build­ing had been changed.

“It was embar­rass­ing,” Yonke said of hav­ing to send the researchers away.

Altar dis­man­tling

As close­ly as parish­ioners can deter­mine, the altar was dis­man­tled in late Jan­u­ary. Rod­ney John­son, a secu­ri­ty guard who works for the church and the neigh­bor­ing Miceli Dairy Prod­ucts Co., said the process took at least a cou­ple of hours.

Dur­ing a morn­ing round, John­son recalled enter­ing the church to see a work­er, who described him­self as a car­pen­ter, work­ing to take apart the altar. Fr. Jef­fery Weaver, a dioce­san priest who cel­e­brates the Latin Mass on week­days at the shrine, was stand­ing near­by, John­son said.

Ques­tion­ing the work being done, John­son said he told both men that long­time parish­ioners would be upset. Weaver respond­ed, John­son said, that “it was just a table.”

John­son left but returned, he esti­mat­ed, about two hours lat­er to see both pedestals sep­a­rat­ed from the altar top. “My stom­ach just dropped. I said to myself, ‘I don’t believe it,’ ” John­son told NCR.

Pry marks and damage are seen on the dismantled altar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Cleveland. (Dennis Sadowski)

Pry marks and dam­age are seen on the dis­man­tled altar at St. Eliz­a­beth of Hun­gary Church in Cleve­land. (Den­nis Sadowski)

John­son lat­er described to Purg­ert and Yonke what he wit­nessed, send­ing a wave of anger and dis­ap­point­ment through the Hun­gar­i­an community.

Nan­cy Fish­burn, dioce­san exec­u­tive direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, respond­ed to a request for com­ment sent to Fr. Don­ald Olek­si­ak, vic­ar gen­er­al and mod­er­a­tor of the curia for the dio­cese. She offered few words on the altar being dis­man­tled and the con­cerns raised by parishioners.

“Con­ver­sa­tions are being held at the lead­er­ship lev­el and parish­ioners will be com­mu­ni­cat­ed with direct­ly on this mat­ter,” Fish­burn wrote. “We do not believe this is a news sto­ry, but rather an inter­nal dis­cus­sion with mem­bers of St. Elizabeth.”

Pressed for an addi­tion­al response, Fish­burn explained in a fol­low-up email that “the dio­cese is aware of some of the con­cerns being expressed and is work­ing to address them direct­ly with those involved.”

She declined to address the role of Weaver as the altar was being dis­man­tled and his work at the shrine, as well as the vet­ting process before the insti­tute was per­mit­ted to locate at St. Eliz­a­beth. Weaver did not respond to an email request for an inter­view sent through the diocese.

Hooger­w­erf and Talari­co did not respond to mul­ti­ple emails and tele­phone calls.

Despite its terse reply, the dio­cese appar­ent­ly is tak­ing the sit­u­a­tion seri­ous­ly. In a mid-Feb­ru­ary let­ter to Spisak, Olek­si­ak said he had shared parish­ioner con­cerns with Bona and insti­tute rep­re­sen­ta­tives days ear­li­er. “Dur­ing our meet­ing, it was dis­cov­ered that the altar inci­dent was an acci­dent and will be repaired and replaced in the very near future. They regret the inci­dent,” Olek­si­ak wrote.

Bona did not respond to a call for comment.

The insti­tute faced sim­i­lar ques­tions in 2019 after being invit­ed to join St. Joseph Parish in Ham­mond, Indi­ana, by the Gary Dio­cese. Parish­ioners there quick­ly saw how the insti­tute made lit­tle effort to incor­po­rate itself into the exist­ing parish com­mu­ni­ty. After parish­ioners raised con­cerns, the insti­tute relo­cat­ed to St. Joseph Ora­to­ry in Mer­ril­lville, Indi­ana, with­in months.

Spisak and oth­er parish­ioners remain skep­ti­cal that the pat­tern of actions by the insti­tute will change despite their protests.

“With any inkling if we had known what was going to go on,” Purg­ert said, “we would have nev­er agreed to this [arrange­ment].”

Source: ncron​line​.org