Holy Rosary Catholic Church is one of 17 Toledo parishes slated to close July 1.
TOLEDO (AP) -- With 204 notarized signatures in hand, the Rev. Frank Eckart boarded a plane to Washington this week in one last attempt to save his church as it heads into what could be its final week.
The Holy Rosary Catholic Church is one of 17 parishes in the Toledo Roman Catholic Diocese scheduled to close July 1 as part of the largest restructuring in the 19-county diocese's history.
The parish has tried twice to appeal Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair's decision to Rome. But because the Vatican does not accept Federal Express deliveries, the appeals were returned, said George Van Doren, chairman of Holy Rosary's finance council.
So the church bankrolled Father Eckart's trip Tuesday to Washington, where he delivered his parishioners' pleas to the Vatican's U.S. ambassador.
Bishop Blair announced in February that changes in living patterns coupled with a shortage of priests necessitated the diocese's realignment.
The country's Catholic population has grown by more than 40 percent since 1967, but the number of priests has fallen by more than a quarter, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
The Toledo diocese has 149 active priests serving more than 300,000 members, including 800 at Holy Rosary.
In addition to the closures, the diocese is merging 12 parishes and asking some pastors to serve more than one congregation. The decisions to close or merge parishes came after a two-year evaluation and town hall meetings with the affected parishes, Sally Oberski, the diocese director of communications, said on Wednesday.
Representatives from 10 parishes affected by the changes have been meeting at St. James Church in Kansas, Ohio, about 40 miles southeast of Toledo.
Dan Thiel of Kirby said he learned more from speaking with other parishioners than he did from his own pastor.
"Our parishes aren't in financial trouble. They are very good at reaching out to the community with many ministries, and in my eyes, there is no reason to close these parishes. I think the 'priest shortage' is an excuse," Thiel said.
St. James is the only other Toledo parish that has appealed closure. But the church isn't relying only on the power of paperwork. Members have been staging a continuous prayer vigil since May 1, even though the locks on the sanctuary and neighboring buildings were changed Monday.
Members still have access to the sanctuary, but the former rectory is shuttered, leaving the property without an accessible bathroom.
If the St. James appeal is rejected, the parish's final Mass will be Sunday.
Oberski said she can't predict how the pope will react to the pleas but said the diocese provided parishes with the information about the appeals process.
"I guess they took us up on that," she said.
In Boston, where the archbishop announced last year that he would close or consolidate 80 parishes, several have been granted reprieves.
After congregational criticism and passionate protests, the archbishop re-evaluated the closures, rescinding closing dates for four parishes.