Panther Valley parishioners reject offer to buy church
A group of Catholics from Panther Valley has turned down an offer from the Diocese of Allentown to buy the former St. Katharine Drexel/St. Michael the Archangel Church.
In a strongly worded response to the diocese, a group of former parishioners said the building shell offered by the diocese is no longer a church, and they were refusing the offer to purchase it for $50,000.
Just a few months ago, the Coal Region Catholics for Change hoped to save the church building from destruction.
But members wrote this week that in their minds, the church ceased to exist when the diocese removed the stained glass and religious items over the past few months. They now feel the diocese should pay to demolish what remains.
“We will not be trapped by your grievous mistake of choosing St. Michael’s for destruction, and we will not, in any way, relieve the diocese of the cost of demolition,” the letter reads.
The diocese offered the church building to former members Rita Klekamp, John Zonca and Donna Valent. Klekamp and Zonca signed the response, as well as a handful of other members of the Coal Region Catholics for Change, the group which challenged the diocese’s 2016 decision to consolidate their parish with another one in nearby Summit Hill.
Valent didn’t sign the letter. She was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
“When you, the wise leaders of the diocese, had decided to close the church and sell all the contents for a substantial profit (to benefit the diocese and the fund for sexual abuse victims), it is now the responsibility of the diocese to demolish the remaining structure. It can no longer serve the purpose for which the miners labored; therefore, it is a fallacy for you to publish that you are offering us the church for sale,” the letter continues.
The letter says that the group decided to decline the offer to purchase the church after they had a chance to inspect the building interior on July 11.
It says that based on the conditions they observed inside the building, they do not believe the diocese had any intent to preserve the building for buyers.
Before the inspection, the diocese removed the altar, all stained glass windows, statues, pews and other items from the church. The diocese said they were complying with canon law, the law of the church, when they removed those items.
The parishioners wrote in their letter that the building shell which was left had clearly deteriorated in the two years since they had been inside.
During the inspection, the sump pumps in the building were not working. There was a clear odor of mold in the building. They also observed that the steps were crumbling, doors were broken, and weeds were growing around the property.
“The lack of ventilation in the building is a definite safety hazard and would be a staggering cost for any prospective buyer,” the letter said.
“The building was purposely allowed to deteriorate. We are talking about desecration of the House of God.”
They said just the fact that the building is deteriorating is an issue. In their letters the parishioners said if a decision to close a church building is appealed, canon law requires the diocese to keep the building maintained until the appeal is completed.
Zonca, who worked at the church for 18 years, said he asked to be able to get into the building during the appeal to prevent problems like the mold and broken sump pumps, but he was denied. He said he was reported to police for sticking a thermometer in the window of the church on a cold winter day during the appeal to see if the church was being maintained at 55 degrees in order to prevent deterioration.
The letter says that denying the congregation access to the church during the appeal is against canon law.
The parishioners wrote that they feel the diocese sold the church’s contents in order to benefit the diocese and the compensation fund for victims of priest sexual abuse.
They said that the diocese should not be able to make them pay for a building which once belonged to them. They invoked the memory of the late miners who dedicated a percentage of their paychecks to pay for the building to be constructed.
The letter concluded with a message to the diocese, “May the spirits of the dead miners live with all of you!”
When the diocese offered the group the building, officials said they were giving them the first opportunity to buy it. They noted that the building needed major repairs both structurally and cosmetically.
In the May 23 letter offering the building, Monsignor David L. James said he hoped they could reach an agreement which “would be beneficial to your desire to preserve the building and the need to help the parish and community move forward.”
Matt Kerr, spokesman for the diocese, said Thursday morning that the property remains on the market.