MILWAUKEE * Despite warning signs that they would not win a two-year fight to oust their priests, parishioners in a small Wisconsin town didn't relent. Neither did their bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison.
On April 25, Morlino told members of St. Mary Parish in Platteville that if they persisted in what he characterized as spreading "rumors and gossip," the Catholics would face some of the church's harshest sanctions: the denial of the sacraments of Communion, confession and burial.
"I didn't think he'd go that far," said Myron Tranel, a member of the parish finance committee. "I think most people are more angry with the bishop right now than they are with the priests."
Angry they are.
Parish protestors say the new priests have brought in pre-Vatican II practices and offended many in the congregation. Contributions to St. Mary have dropped by more than half and hundreds have left for other parishes or Protestant churches. Morlino's warning to the dissident parishioners came in a letter announcing the closing of the parish school, even though the parish had just raised $1.8 million for capital improvements. The money, according to lay leaders, will have to be returned to donors.
The closing of the parish school appears to have brought the long-simmering dispute to a head. Morlino said in his letter that he offered a guarantee of emergency funding for the school and that the priests had worked out a plan for operating on a reduced budget. Parishioners, Morlino said, saw the removal of the priests as the only solution.
"This would, I have been told by many people, ransom the school from those who are protesting and return giving to its previous level," Morlino wrote. "But, as evidenced by the very fact of this situation of protest and refusal to support the needs of the Church, the deficit at St. Mary and St. Augustine Parishes is of a much greater kind."
The parish had been collecting between $11,000 and $12,000 a week, according to a former parish council member. That's dropped to between $4,000 and $5,000.
St. Mary was a tranquil parish with a thriving elementary school until June 2010, when Morlino assigned three traditionalist priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to the parish. They replaced a beloved pastor, Msgr. Charles Schluter, who had served the 1,200-member parish for more than a decade.
Some parishioners said the new priests made too many changes too quickly.
Platteville has a population of about 11,000; the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a handful of engineering firms are the biggest businesses. Farms surround the community.
"This is basically a conservative community," said Rose Mary Anderson, a former member of the parish council. "It's not liberal like Madison."
Nonetheless, Anderson said the changes wrought by the new priests "were shocking" to many in the parish.
The order of priests was founded in 1957 by Fr Alfonso Galvez and is based in Murcia, Spain. Priests of the order live in community and have a special ministry to Catholic youth, according to the Madison diocesan website. Fr. Faustino Ruiz is now St. Mary's pastor and he is assisted by Fr. John Del Priore. The two also serve a smaller parish in Platteville, St. Augustine, which is associated with the university. A third priest of the order lives in the Platteville community and serves a parish in another nearby small town. Six other members of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest serve parishes in the diocese, which covers 11 counties in the mostly rural part of southwestern Wisconsin.
"They had a reputation of upsetting another parish with their very conservative ways," Anderson said of the order. "Right away, they said no girl altar servers, only priests could give Communion and they …