In a yet another effort to save their parish, former members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church have pleaded to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, chosen by Pope Francis as the new Archbishop of Newark, to keep their house of worship open.
Last May the archdiocese said it was merging Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is on Pine Street, with the Church of the Immaculate Conception on North Fullerton Avenue, creating a new parish called St. Teresa of Calcutta. The plan, issued under then-Archbishop John Myers, drew an outcry from Mount Carmel’s parishioners and sparked an effort to keep it from being shuttered.
“This was a land-grab deal in the middle of the night to take away Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” said Raffaele Marzullo, a former parishioner of the church. “God bless St. Teresa of Calcutta. I support our missionaries in India. The work she did, God bless her a million times. … But please, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Immaculate Conception, do not get trumped by St. Teresa of Calcutta.”
Marzullo is a member of the Committee to Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. The church’s supporters have already appealed to the Vatican, submitting a petition with more than 4,000 names, to keep their brick church alive. That appeal could take some time to process. Earlier this month, the committee sent a letter to Tobin asking him to reconsider Myers’ decree and to allow Mount Carmel “to remain open and functioning as either a linked or independent parish.”
The letter, signed by committee member and ex-Mount Carmel business manager Frank Cardell, laid out what it claims are the reasons to keep the church open and was highly critical of the Rev. Joseph Scarangella, who was pastor of Immaculate Conception and is now pastor of the new merged St. Teresa parish. Tobin hasn’t responded to the letter yet, Marzullo said.
Scarangella declined to comment this week, referring all questions to the archdiocese. Jim Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman, disputed Marzullo’s claims, saying there are no plans at this time to close Mount Carmel or to divest the property. It remains open, still offering Mass, even though the merger with Immaculate Conception officially took place last September, Goodness said.
The U.S. Catholic Church has been shuttering churches and consolidating parishes across the country, in places such as New York City, in reaction to demographic changes, the scarcity of priests and declining attendance at houses of worship. Such closings often prompt an outcry from parishioners protesting the loss of their local churches.
After the merger
Last year the Newark archdiocese cited Mount Carmel’s dramatic drop in membership and attendance from 1995 to 2015 and dwindling number of sacraments being performed at the church as the drivers for its consolidation with Immaculate Conception, which has also seen steep declines, Goodness said. In an official decree Myers issued last July, he said the merger was meant to revitalize both churches, which are less than a mile apart. He added that both “should remain open for as long as it is possible and beneficial” to their members.
Both Cardell in his letter and Marzullo said that Mount Carmel still serves a vital role in the community and described it as a small but profitable church, in better shape financially than Immaculate Conception, in part because it has a tradition of hosting events and celebrating the various feasts. And Mount Carmel continued its community outreach even after it was notified of the merger, Cardell said in his letter to Tobin.
“Understanding the need for the Catholic Church to merge, close or link parishes for financial and future population needs, we do not feel closing an active profitable parish is in the best interest of RCAN [Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark],” Cardell said in his letter.
Mount Carmel has proposed ways to boost its membership and its revenue, such as instituting Spanish-language Masses and offering bingo again, according to Marzullo. But it hasn’t been able to get approval for those plans, he said.
The archdiocese was motivated, under Myers, to make money by selling the church’s property, which he valued at $4 million to $6 million, according to Marzullo. The archdiocese denies that assertion. Mount Carmel is in Montclair’s Fourth Ward.
“It’s a prime piece of real estate,” Marzullo said.
In conflict or not?
Cardell and Marzullo also maintain that pastor Scarangella has stymied their efforts to make Mount Carmel grow. Those considered “in conflict” with the goals of St. Teresa’s parish are “considered outcasts,” according to Cardell. Scarangella has barred a number of Mount Carmel activities from being held at Immaculate Conception, Marzullo said.
Goodness defended prohibiting Immaculate Conception from being used as a venue for activity that goes against the archdiocese’s plan to close Mount Carmel.
“The kinds of meetings they’re having are geared towards breaking or petitioning to dissolve the reorganization,” Goodness said. “Well, that’s contrary to what the church has done here. I think anyone who steps back a second and takes the emotion out says, ‘OK, that makes a lot of sense. This group is there because it wants to tear things apart from what we’ve done.’ … That is not something that is helping to grow the parish for the future.”
He described the process of merging the two Montclair churches as one fraught with “growing pains” and “trying to find the way forward.”
Tobin will be visiting groups of parishes, called deaneries, throughout the archdiocese, and the meeting for the one that includes Montclair churches is slated for May, according to Goodness.
Last Friday, St. Patrick’s Day, a Mount Carmel group, Club Aquilonese San Vito Martire, wrote to Tobin to invite him to serve Mass on May 7 at the Pine Street church to celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary. Some of Mount Carmel’s former parishioners have roots in Aquilonia, Italy, including Marzullo, who said that he immigrated to the United States from there when he was 7 years old. The Aquilonese club and Marzullo played a key role in the township’s forging a so-called Sister City agreement with Aquilonia in January. Mount Carmel was founded, funded and built by Italian immigrants.
Last Sunday Tobin asked churches in the archdiocese to ring their bells in recognition of the plight of immigrants and refugees. The Fourth Ward has become a melting pot of not only people of Italian descent but also Spanish-speaking as well as Indian immigrants, and serves as the Roman Catholic outlet for Glen Ridge, he said.
“One thing Cardinal Tobin doesn’t realize is that within our own archdiocese, between Father Joseph Scarangella and the rest of the crew … down in Newark, they are stifling in Montclair, in the Fourth Ward, a church that has Spanish immigrants from the neighborhood,” he said. “We want to know why we are not allowed to have a Spanish Mass. … Our numbers would double and triple on Sundays.”
St. Teresa hosted its first parish social, for members of Immaculate Conception and Mount Carmel, this past weekend. Marzullo said he attended the meet-and-greet at Mount Carmel, and that there were about 155 people there. Roughly 80 percent were from Mount Carmel, according to Marzullo.
“Don’t get me wrong: It was nice, we got to mingle,” he said. “But it was a dog-and-pony show for the new cardinal to say. ‘Look, everybody is getting along.’”
The new parish has also set a March 29 meeting at Immaculate Conception about the Catholic Charities refugee initiative and how churchgoers can become involved.