By Judith Scherr
Some 50 St. Joseph the Worker parishioners gathered Friday night, but they weren’t at the century-old sanctuary on Berkeley’s Addison Street. Instead, they met at old Finn Hall on Tenth Street, because, they say, they can no longer freely gather at the church many attended for decades – and that some no longer frequent.
The group, which some refer to as Salvemos (save us), met to spell out concerns with the St. Joseph leadership – and to strategize on how to reform the church they loved when radical priest Fr. Bill O’Donnell and progressive successors and colleagues were at the helm of the church community.
“We now find ourselves confronted by challenges that test our faith,” said parishioner Raul Ramirez, who moderated the meeting in Spanish and English.
“We have heartfelt concerns… in three key areas of our parish,” he said. “The lack of vision, the lack of communication, and failed leadership.”
Tensions within the church community date back to July 2009 with the arrival at the parish of Fr. John Direen. The appointment was made by Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, a conservative bishop who had been one of the driving forces behind Prop. 8, California’s anti-gay-marriage law.
Mike Brown, spokesperson for the Oakland Diocese, responded to Berkeleyside’s request for an interview with Fr. John Direen of St. Joseph’s, saying that Fr. Direen would sit down for an interview with Berkeleyside after meeting with dissident parishioners on April 10. After speaking with Fr. Direen, Brown responded to some of the parishioners’ concerns, as noted below.
Critics say Direen doesn’t consult with the church community, and controls the parish councils through his appointments to them, but the Diocese said in a statement published last year that Fr. Direen appointed people to the parish council only after terms ran out.
Further, participants at the Friday evening meeting criticized Fr. Direen for turning what had been community space into a gift shop. The community room had been of particular significance, serving as a meeting space for the larger Berkeley community and giving birth to a number of initiatives that has empowered the Latino and other minority communities, they said. It’s also where the church councils met and where the Social Justice Committee hammered out plans over the years that led to its leadership in opposing U.S. arms shipments to Central American dictatorships, the death penalty and war.
Church leadership, however, has said that conversion of this space was to bring much-needed revenue into the church.
These days, Social Justice Committee members say Fr. Direen has excluded them from the church because many of their members take part in a vigil outside the church on Sundays. No one who protests publicly is allowed to serve the church in any capacity, such as ushers, lectors or Eucharistic ministers, parishioners say.
Spokesperson Brown said it’s true that the dissident parishioners haven’t been welcomed into various church roles. “They were disruptive during services,” Brown said, notably wearing the t-shirts that that identify themselves as protesters. (The shirts say: “St. Joseph the Worker is Our Church.”) Brown further said that Fr. Direen met with the Social Justice Committee members last year “and expressed a willingness to meet again.”
Friday night’s meeting was a preamble to a Palm Sunday event, some declined to call a protest, where parishioners and former parishioners will wear their St. Joseph the Worker shirts and stand on the sidewalk in front of the church to call for change. They say they believe a large turnout will make the church hierarchy listen.
They held a similar demonstration that drew around 150 people to the sidewalk in front of the church last June; 10-20 people have been outside every Sunday since then, holding placards such as “We need a pastor who resolves conflicts, not one who causes them,” and “Our voice counts too.”
As Friday meeting participants enumerated their grievances, volunteers inscribed them on butcher paper in English and Spanish; these will be presented to Direen at the April 10 meeting. (Some said notice of the Friday Finn Hall meeting had pushed Direen to meet, something the dissidents said they’d tried to do since September; Brown said the meeting was in response to parishioners’ requests.)
First on the grievance list was the question of Fr. George Crespin, a retired St. Joseph priest Direen removed last year and who spoke at Friday’s gathering.
“We’d love to see Fr. Crespin come back,” said one member of the audience. And if not, another said, he should be allowed to celebrate weddings, baptisms and funerals at the request of parishioners. Crespin supporters said he not only speaks Spanish well, something important to the large Spanish-speaking community at St. Joseph, but he knows how to listen and communicate with that community.
Brown said that Fr. Direen “will consider special requests [for Fr. Crespin] on a case by case basis.”
Participants called for transparency of church finances, arguing that they haven’t seen a finance statement since 2010, but Brown told Berkeleyside that the diocese requires the church’s annual financial statement by the end of March each year. The 2011 statement will be made public in the months after its submission, he said.
There were many demands for a more democratic-minded leadership. “We need to return to the old fashioned idea of consulting with the people of God,” one woman said.
Mary O’Donnell, Fr. Bill O’Donnell’s sister, drew applause when she called for direct action. “Let our voice be heard and put pressure on the Bishop,” she said. “Let’s bring our protest to the Bishop’s office.”
The evening closed with words and prayer from Fr. Crespin: “There’s a lot of pain in the community; there’s a lot of pain in this room,” he said. “What we’re fighting for is to live in a community of faith. It’s not a personal conflict between me and Father Direen. If we’re fighting for our faith, we have to act according to our faith. Faith is essential; love is essential.”
He called for reconciliation and forgiveness and, he said, “the gift of hope.”