“It’s good to be home” was the overwhelming sentiment — expressed both in smiles and tears — from former parishioners before and after Sunday morning’s reopening Mass at Akron’s St. John the Baptist Church.
St. John’s was among 50 churches closed or merged by Cleveland Bishop Richard G. Lennon between August 2009 and June 2010 as part of a reconfiguration to address a shortage of priests, declining attendance and dwindling resources in the eight-county diocese.
After a long and contentious battle, the Vatican recently ordered 11 of those parishes, including St. John’s, to be reopened.
St. John’s had merged with Annunciation to become Visitation of Mary Parish. Annunciation’s property at 55 Broad St. was selected as the worship site and St. John’s was boarded up.
But Sunday, former parishioners and others flocked back to St. John’s, filling the church nearly to capacity.
Dominic and Donna Stillo of Portage Lakes were among the first to arrive, nearly an hour before the Mass.
“We belong to Nativity. Now we’ll have two memberships!” a jubilant Donna Stillo declared, referring to Nativity of the Lord Jesus Church. “It’s a little hard, but God wanted it that way.
“I always had a feeling it would reopen, and it has!”
Dominic Stillo — who was very active at St. John’s, where he even did the lawn work — served as the reader this day. “This is where I married my first wife,” the 81-year-old said. “This is where our four children took the sacrament and went to school.
“You can’t imagine just how happy I am,” he continued, his words bathed in tears. “This is something we’ve been praying for such a long time. This is a happy and glorious day!”
The difficulty as some of the parishioners see it — even in the midst of their rejoicing — is that former members who have joined other churches may want to hold on to that membership.
Maryann Mushinski and her sister, Monica Fanady, both of Green, grew up in St. John’s. Their ties date back more than 70 years.
The sisters said they never thought the church would close, and then they never thought it would reopen. They called the opening a miracle.
Stepping back into St. John with her husband Tony brought tears to the eyes of Akron’s Barbara Piurkowski, a longtime St. John’s member and activist in the arduous reopening process.
Piurkowski was one of several in the Cleveland Diocese like Akron’s Nancy McGrath who petitioned the Vatican to keep the 11 churches open.
They wrote letters, helped organize vigils, placed fliers on cars opposing the church closings, and were threatened with arrest.
“I never thought we would win, but we did,” Piurkow-ski. “And it’s a miracle Bishop Lennon didn’t protest [the reopening decision] and he had a chance to.”
An equally triumphant McGrath said when she and her husband left the Mass, “we could feel the power of the faith in the church among the people. It was that faith that built St. John and is going to carry it forward.”
“We didn’t think about the size of the battle when we started it,” said McGrath, who is a member of St. Peter’s in Cleveland, which also is being reopened.
“But when we came together as a group [from the many parishes], we were amazed the story was the same in every parish. We all experienced the same things and we were all determined to save our parishes. There was no reason to close them down. “
In the end, she said, the Vatican was listening to all the messages it was receiving from the Diocese of Cleveland.
“The great joy of this four-year process has been the strong friendships I’ve made [among the faithful],” she said. “They all came together. ... There is such an appreciation among those appealing the parishes’ closings of the history and ethnicity of the churches we didn’t have before. That was the gift of this battle. We wish all parishes had it.”
The Rev. Jonathan Zingales, who is pastor at Visitation of Mary Parish and will be pastor at St. John’s, said he hopes the returning parishioners “will find peace in worshiping here.”
“We will do our best with the emphasis on we,” said Zingales, a familiar presence at St. John’s as he was administrator and lived there for more than a year beginning in 2005.
“We need organizations and we need to be service-minded and opened to new evangelization.”
As of Sunday, there were 49 families and 71 people formally registered to return to the parish, with the median age being 72.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Zingales said Bishop Lennon has not set any hard-and-fast rules about how many families will be needed to keep the church open. “He knows these are fragile communities and he understands that,” Zingales said.
Mass at St. John’s will be limited to 10 a.m. Sundays, with weekdays at Visitation of Mary Parish, Rectory Chapel, at 8:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m. on Holy Days.
While leaving St. John’s was out of the parishioners’ hands two years ago, deciding what to do now is painful, too.
Lynn Vanca of Akron, who grew up at St. John’s, now attends Immaculate in Kenmore with her mother.
“I’m torn between the two,” she said. “I’m excited that the parish has reopened and has a chance for a new beginning. But I’m involved in so many activities at the new church.”
That St. John’s was so beautifully glistening — from its stained-glass windows to its dark-stained pews — was the work of Richard Orr, director of buildings and grounds. “I worked solidly for three weeks,” Orr said, noting that a cleaning crew also was hired.
“Not everything is back,” he said, referring to some of the artifacts and mosaics. “It’s a slow process. We’ve never done this before.”
Akron Police Detective Paul Bralek, who provided security for all of the church closings, saw it as his duty — professionally and personally — to be there.
“I was there for the closing, along with other law enforcement,” he said. “So it was important for me to represent them and be back for the reopening. We were there when they lost their home and wanted to celebrate with them on their day of joy when they got it back.”
Bralek said working security for the closings was a difficult assignment, especially true at St. John’s.
“I had a lot of family married and buried out of that church,” said Bralek, who is a member of St. Matthew’s.
Bralek also pledges to be at Akron’s St. Mary’s parish during its reopening Mass.
“It just feels a whole lot better being there on a positive note than on a sad one,” Bralek said.
St. Mary’s had merged with St. Bernard, becoming St. Bernard-St. Mary Parish, with St. Bernard serving as the worship site. St. Mary’s is expected to open in August before the start of the school year.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.