WELLSVILLE - Apart from divine intervention, parishioners of the now-closed Immaculate Conception Catholic Church have reached the pinnacle in their bid to have their church reopened, with their appeal now in the hands of Pope Francis.
During a press conference earlier this week on the steps of the Main Street church, Tom Brophey announced that parishioners' letter of appeal was hand-delivered to the Vatican on Thanksgiving day by the Vatican secretary of state.
He said knowing that Pope Francis personally reads all mail delivered to the Vatican gives new hope that the two-year-old appeal to reopen the church may be addressed.
"It is a great feeling knowing something is actively going to the pope, especially knowing (he) opens his own mail," Brophey said, adding the fact the letter of appeal was delivered on Thanksgiving day is "a very positive thing."
This is the latest - and Brophey admitted, most likely the final - step in the appeal process that began after plans were announced by the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown and Bishop George V. Murry that a plan of reconfiguration would be initiated, essentially closing ICC and merging it with St. Aloysius in East Liverpool.
During a previous protest in front of the diocese offices in Youngstown, one parishioner, Kenny Biacco, carried a sign declaring, "Youngstown today, Vatican tomorrow," and although reaching the Vatican took a bit longer than one day, Biacco stood on the steps for Monday's press conference saying, "We warned them."
The church was officially closed on July 2, 2011, with parishioners expected to join the newly formed Holy Trinity Parish at the former St. Aloysius church in East Liverpool.
However, Brophey said many of the 150 families that once attended ICC have moved on to churches outside the area, even into other dioceses, rather than attend Holy Trinity, where he and others said they do not feel welcome.
After more than a year of closure, prayer sessions held in other churches and fundraisers to pay for their appeal, Murry issued a decree on Dec. 6, 2012, stating that ICC would be reopened once each year for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and once a week for a prayer service.
The two-hour Thursday prayer services are not Mass and are conducted by four leaders of prayer from Holy Trinity, not the Rev. Peter Haladej, according to parishioners who gathered Monday for the press conference.
Brophey said they had been asked to pay $1,800 per month for the weekly prayer service but their legal advocate advised against paying it.
Asked the difference in the cost of the prayer services and holding an actual Mass, Brophey said they have been unable to get Haladej to give them a cost for Mass.
Although the primary reason given for the reconfiguration was financial, Biacco said, "We were solid financially."
Brophey said that was "the furthest thing from the truth that the church was struggling financially."
The parishioners said the church brought in at least $2,000 per week in collections and as much as $5,000 on Christmas and had $145,000 in the bank when Haladej took over.
The yearly Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception decreed last December by Murry has never taken place, although parishioners have been advised it will finally take place this month, if they could just ascertain the exact date and time.
Brophey said he has made at least six calls to Holy Trinity and has been told by the secretary she does not know the Mass schedule, although Haladej had said it would be announced the week before.
Brophey called several other Catholic churches and was given the Mass schedule for each one, he said, noting that most will be celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, so parishioners are hoping the same is true at ICC.
Meanwhile, it is a waiting game as the Pope reviews their long battle to have the church open for a weekly Mass, and Brophey said he is uncertain when a decision might be made.