Amid an ongoing closure dispute, Holy Rosary & St. John Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio, will celebrate 125 years this weekend with an anniversary Mass celebrated by the bishop who is planning to shutter the historic Black parish.
Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, who announced this summer his plans to close HRSJ as part of the diocese’s Real Presence, Real Future reorganization plan, will celebrate the Sunday liturgy on October 29.
Current and former pastors of the parish will also be present, including Fr Ramon Owera and Jesuit priests Frederick Benda and Robert Scullin. Deacon Frank Iannarino will assist.
“Everyone is welcome,” the parish said in an online announcement.
“We hope alumni, former members, and community members will attend and celebrate with current parishioners.”
Though the anniversary celebration has been in the works for some time, the prospect of the parish celebrating its history was cast into doubt this spring with the release of the diocese’s report on a three-year viability study.
HRSJ was determined to be one of several parishes seen as financially unsustainable, both due to low attendance and the need for various expensive building renovations. It is slated to be merged with the diocese’s other predominantly Black parish, St. Dominic’s, at an unknown date.
In January, Bishop Fernandes reportedly told members of HRSJ that they had “nothing to worry about” as the Real Presence, Real Future process reached its completion.
As a result, following the announcement in May that the parish will be closed, members of HRSJ protested the bishop’s move, with one longtime parishioner and parish council member calling it a “disingenuous” decision based on “guesstimates.”
Fern Upshaw, who has helped to organize both the resistance and the upcoming anniversary celebration, has said the parish could sustain itself if given the chance. In view of that goal, she has helped organize a “Save HRSJ” campaign, including a website, petition, social media, and community organizing to advocate for the parish to stay open.
Meetings with Fernandes have not been successful, however, with the prelate reportedly telling supporters that initiatives to increase activity at the parish should have begun long before his arrival.
Nevertheless, Upshaw says the decision to shutter the church reflects a stark contrast with what she sees from the witness of the Holy Father.
“I can only hope that the bishops in the US will listen to and follow the teachings of Pope Francis, and rather than close parishes, that they evangelize, especially in inner city and rural areas, through service,” she told BCM this week.
“I pray that decisions will be made by faith rather than fear.”
With emotions running high, the anniversary Mass is expected to be a bittersweet affair. It will celebrate the long legacy of Catholic presence in the Old Oaks neighborhood with the looming prospect that it will soon be no more.
Among the potential losses is the parish’s St. John Community Center, which has a separate budget and provides free GED classes, parenting resources, financial seminars, food, and healthcare to Columbus’ largely impoverished South Side.
The diocese told BCM in May that no final decision had been made about the learning center, nor has there been a decree issued to set the date for the church's closure. Members of the parish would have ten days thereafter to file an appeal with the Vatican.
For now, however, parishioners will pray—like they always have.
This weekend’s anniversary Mass is scheduled to begin at 9:30am ET. Those interested in attending the reception in the Learning Center after the liturgy are asked to RSVP online.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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