The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

January 19, 2011

A lack of priests in Oklahoma is cited for shutting down St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church

ENID — Word that St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church will be closed later this year is not sitting well with some parishioners.

Outgoing Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, will speak to church members about the situation at Saturday and Sunday Masses. Saturday Mass will be 5:30 p.m., while Sunday Masses are at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.

Archdiocese Chancellor Tish Eason said the decision to close St. Gregory was due to a shortage of priests and not a financial consideration.

The Rev. Larry Kowalski, who is pastor of the church, will retire in June. He is 75 years old, said Dee Cunningham, who works in the church office. Eason said priests usually retire around the age of 70, then fill in for other churches in retirement. The church will close when Kowalski retires.

“The decision was prompted by an extreme shortage of priests,” Eason said. “We lost a priest last week who we expected to serve a church several more years and another priest is very, very ill. We don’t have enough to staff two parishes in Enid.”

When St. Gregory closes, parishioners are expected to transfer to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Eason said the archbishop knows there are many good community outreach programs at the church and hopes those will be continued at St. Francis.

Use of the building has not yet been decided, she said.

“The bishop met with the parish council, and he will be at the weekend masses at St. Gregory’s and will meet with the parish leaders at St. Francis this weekend,” Eason said.

Cunningham said the decision is devastating. St. Gregory has 500 families as members, about 300 who are active.

“The archbishop is coming Saturday and Sunday to tell us what he’s doing. Everyone is up in arms, very disappointed. This church is very active in the community,” she said.

There currently are seven employees at the church.

Parishioner Deloris Fore said she is angry.

“I’m very unhappy and so is most of the parish,” she said. “We do so much for the community, it’s unbelievable. We could be a mission church and have a priest come over and say Mass. We can run the church.”

Eason said there are no plans to make St. Gregory a mission church.

Fore also referred to the church’s food giveaway program and its assistance to people who cannot afford medicine or utilities. The Altar Society raises money for the Good Samaritan Fund for people in dire need, she said.

“It’s horrible what’s going to happen to that,” she said.

Fore said St. Gregory’s is a viable church, has a good collection and can maintain itself without help from the archdiocese. She said many people at Vance Air Force Base attend the church because of the loving and family atmosphere they experience. Fore’s mother was one of the founders of the church and was a member for 32 years.

“It’s so heartbreaking, so sad,” Fore said.

Another parishioner Wednesday said she also was angry about the closing of the church. Martha Potts said most parishioners do not want the church closed.

“I am a convert, but I am ready to go back and be a Protestant again,” she said. “It was a stealth decision made without anyone else’s knowledge. The archbishop is retiring. That’s a lovely church and it does so much good. It’s a travesty if it closes, and if I can do anything to save it I will do it.”

The reason the closure process begins this soon is because issues can develop and be addressed in a timely manner, Eason said. There will be a considerable amount of effort and working through that will come from parishioners of the two churches working together, she said.

“It’s not an easy decision to close a parish, it’s not an easy decision,” Eason said. “It’s a process of grieving. I personally feel for the people of St. Gregory and know the archbishop has a great deal of concern for them.”

Some members of the church said they will try to fight the decision. Kowalski declined comment, referring questions to the archdiocese.

St. Gregory was founded in 1971. Members held Mass in the Knights of Columbus Hall until there was sufficient money to build the first church on the same site as the present church on Willow. The late Larry McClure, a local builder and member, built the church.

The church food pantry serves about 200 families every week and last year served 6,000 families, Cunningham said.

Paul S. Coakley will become archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on Feb. 11.

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