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Plans for Knights of Peter Claver unit at SoCal Ordinariate parish upended by pastor

After being approved last year, a prospective Claver council in Orange County, CA has been tabled—apparently due to the order's outspoken advocacy for social justice.

A planned council of the Knights of Peter Claver & Ladies Auxiliary at an Ordinariate parish in California has been quashed—and likely due to racism, according to the prospective council head.

It would have made history both as the first KPC unit at an Ordinariate parish, and also as the first in Orange County (an affluent region in Southern California that is only ~2% Black).

Last year, Gunnar Gundersen led the effort at Irvine's St John Henry Newman Catholic Church, a parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. The plan was initially approved in December by the parish administrator, Fr Evan Simington, after the POCSP bishop Steven J. Lopes gave the green light in August.

The POCSP is one of three personal ordinariates worldwide, established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow former Anglicans to establish Catholic parishes according to their patrimony—and with their own bishops or "ordinaries" (acting bishops).

Simington was the first seminarian for the POCSP, which operates in the United States and Canada, and Lopes the first official bishop for any of the three personal ordinariates. Simington arrived at St John's last June.

Around the same time, Gundersen, who is Black, became the first personal ordinariate member to join the KPC, the largest Black Catholic organization in the country.

Promotional efforts at St John’s led to several members joining the Clavers, including Greg Herr and his wife, as well as Greg Walgenbach, a former Episcopalian priest who attends a different parish in the area. (The group needed seven men to officially form a council.)

By late May 2021, however, something had changed.

In response to an email from Herr, Simington noted a number of new “issues”, including the claim that it would go against a “classically Catholic approach” if the prospective council leaders were to seek members rather than form the group from already-interested parishioners.

He also questioned several articles he found on the KPC website from Religion News Service, America Magazine, and Catholic Standard (in support of Black Lives Matter, voting rights, and anti-racism, respectively).

Simington framed his opposition to the latter article in reference to critical race theory—which was not mentioned in the article—and questioned a second article from America (on the racism faced by Atlanta’s Fr Bruce Wilkinson during seminary) because “race relations in the Catholic Church are certainly different now then they were in the 70s”.

“We have to think about these issues with the mind of the Church and not the ‘spirit of the age’,” he added, additionally requesting a “ministry plan” from Herr to show how a KPC council “would help support the mission and outreach of [St John’s]”.

(Notably, a Knights of Columbus council currently exists at St John's without issue—though Simington did not respond to Herr’s request for their submitted ministry plan, to use as a template.)

Herr provided a rough draft of a ministry plan on May 30th, but no firm response was forthcoming. By July, Simington had effectively revoked permission for the establishment of the council, citing the parish’s COVID-19 recovery and leaving several of the new Clavers dumbfounded.

“[He said] basically, at some unspecified point in the future we could do one, allegedly after they had built up the parish in accord with the ‘core elements’,” Gundersen told BCM this week. “Why that doesn’t include Catholic fraternity, I don’t know.”

“But, of course, I do know.”

With this new situation, alongside long-standing lax enforcement of COVID restrictions and other factors, Gundersen and his family no longer felt welcome at the parish.

They’ve now transitioned to Church of the Transfiguration, a Black parish in LA run by the Josephites, “for the foreseeable future”.

Gundersen sent a letter to Simington on July 11th, citing various racist incidents he had experienced at the parish—one involving a Knight of Columbus in particular—and the betrayal he felt concerning the Claver council.

In response, Simington merely reiterated that the parish isn't ready for a new ministry to be established—omitting any mention of the ideological concerns he’d expressed to Herr, who is White.

(Meanwhile, St. John’s is hosting two lectures this week on Blessed Charles of Austria by Charles A. Coulombe; it is not immediately clear how they relate to the Ordinariate. However, Coulombe himself is a Knight of Peter Claver.)

The plans for a KPC council in OC have now shifted to Christ Cathedral, seat of the diocesan bishop Kevin Vann (who is also a Claver). Walgenbach, who directs the Life, Justice and Peace commission for the diocese, is joining Gundersen and Herr in that effort.

“Gunnar and I are actually glad for closure. It liberates us to work elsewhere,” Herr told BCM.

“Nevertheless, this was a mistake on [Simington]’s part of epic proportions.”

Percy Marchand, associate director of the KPC national office, agreed with the new plan and lamented the situation with St. John’s.

“We are certainly disappointed with [their] decision to table establishment of a unit in Orange County,” he said, though adding praise for the continued efforts of the new Clavers.

“We are grateful to be blessed with such committed and strong members ready and willing to answer the call to spread faith, hope, and love through friendship, unity, and Christian charity.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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