The Destruction of a Parish: Now What?


A former Aquinas Newman Center parishioner wanted to know if other former ANC parishioners were interested in celebrating Mass together at the Norbertine Community’s Abbey on South Coors. Knowing the Abbey chapel is quite small, she called ahead to see if it would be okay if 20-30 former ANC parishioners came to the 9:00 A.M. service on August 24.

Told that it was okay, she sent out an email to a few parishioners. They passed them on and on August 25 more than 200 former ANC parishioners converged on a chapel that seats only about forty. The Norbertine staff brought out chairs from the library, from offices and anywhere they could. In the end, almost all attendees found a seat. It was a fishes and loaves kind of happening.

Clearly, the former ANC parishioners hadn’t lost their sense of community in the two months since their church buildings and Dominican priory were in a sense expropriated by the Archbishop of Santa Fe by his removal of the ANC’s Dominican staff. The Dominican Order had created the ANC at the University of New Mexico more than 60 years ago and has staffed it since. The staff that replaced the Dominicans is of a different stripe altogether. They are from what is commonly referred to as the traditionalist wing of the Church, meaning (among other things) they do not embrace Vatican II. They yearn for the bad old days.

On the weekend of July 5th-6th, ANC parishioners attended the first Masses under the new staff at ANC. But many did not return. The chapel had been greatly changed in the few days since the July 1 takeover and this was the first opportunity for parishioners to see them. The altar had been relocated to the chapel’s east end and now had the look and feel of a stage on which the celebrants were to perform rather than engage. The former half-circle seating around a mid-chapel altar was no more. The long and narrow alignment meant that the Mass would now be more heard than seen by those sitting in the back half of the chapel, the reason why the altar had been in its former location.

The chapel had been redecorated but the effect was not pleasing. The formerly bright and cheery chapel now seemed dark, dull and lifeless. One parishioner aptly characterized it as “creepy”. Parishioners’ artwork that had formerly brightened the chapel and brought joy and inspiration was gone, replaced by dreary statues and Stations of the Cross depictions that must have come from the Dollar Store. The altar now sported three fancy chair/thrones on which the presiders now occasionally sat, dour and unsmiling.

The new pastor had little to say at his first Mass about the takeover and made no effort to mollify unhappy parishioners. His homily was okay but simplistic and portended a future of disappointing preaching. The standard set by homilists from the Order of Preachers (as the Dominican Order is called) would now only be a memory. What was most striking about the service itself was all the genuflecting, bowing, nodding and ceremonious moving about on the altar—a kind of formalism that brought to mind my altar boy experiences of the ‘50s. I had thought that platens were a thing of past once dry, non-slippery communion hosts began to be placed not on recipients’ tongues but on their hands, in accordance with Vatican II. After all, one of the rationales for the change was to reduce the number of dropped hosts. Yet here they were again. Altar servers carefully held the platens under the priests’ hands to catch wayward communion hosts. Communion was distributed only by clergy—lay people are no longer worthy at ANC. Further, there will be no women altar servers with possible exceptions for pre-menstrual females. For now, only men measure up.

Unsurprisingly, things have not gone well at ANC after the takeover. Several lightly-paid but popular ANC staff members were terminated when the new staff took over on July 1. These terminations occurred because the new pastor had decreed that only clerics, not lay people, had the qualifications to oversee religious education for children and the preparation of Catholic converts. For similar reasons, a lay Bible study teacher for many years was told he could not continue his classes at ANC.

Most of the choir members, most of whom have sung at the ANC for many years, had intended to stay on under the new pastor. But it wasn’t long before the new pastor complained that they were “distracting” the faithful and almost all decided to move on to other parishes and other choirs.

At this point, with Mass attendance and Sunday collections down by more than half, some say by much more than half, all of the remaining ANC administrative staff and the music director have now been laid off. The pastor pleads for more donations, saying he doesn’t want to ask the Archbishop for financial assistance to the parish, yet it’s hard to think of anyone more appropriate to help out.

In light of how things are going, the new pastor, who had refused all requests to meet with parishioners before the takeover, has now instructed his 26-year old associate pastor to reach out to current and former parishioners and invite them to an open community meeting. These efforts seem unlikely to bear fruit.

Needless to say, there was no reason for any of this painful, slow-moving disaster to happen. Before the takeover, the ANC was by all measures a thriving parish with increasing membership, a much-loved clerical staff and parishioners who generously funded and volunteered time to student activities at ANC, including a Sunday night dinner. The dinners are now being discontinued for lack of funds.

Why did all this happen? Although he claimed he sought only to increase vocations among students, Archbishop Sheehan had not been happy with the ANC for a long time, apparently because the Dominican priests at ANC followed the charism of their religious order, took Vatican II reforms seriously and embraced the words of Pope Francis. That is why they declined to follow the Archbishop’s wishes that they devote more of their preaching and parish activities to such matters as abortion politics and gay marriage. The Dominicans were also in his doghouse because they allowed women to speak from the pulpit from time to time, always earning reprimands from the Archbishop, even if the speaker was a Dominican nun.

Whatever the Archbishop claims were his motives for banning of the ANC Dominicans, the operative fact is that he is a traditionalist who, well after Pope Francis’ inauguration, wrote in praise of Pope Benedict for stifling Vatican II reforms. He wanted his parishes to follow his traditionalist lead and the ANC didn’t go along.

So a Pope Benedict Archbishop took down a Pope Francis parish.


The deed and the damage have been done. The ANC diaspora has occurred. Hundreds of former ANC parishioners are now checking out other parishes in the Archdiocese and finding new spiritual homes. The Dominicans are gone and they won’t be coming back. This is not to say the ANC could not be resurrected by the appointment of a new pastor who truly believes that Vatican II is the law of the land.

Barring that unlikely event, what must we do? We must do two things: (1) be a positive influence on the selection of Archbishop Sheehan’s successor and (2) support efforts to reform the governance of the Catholic Church. Without such reform, other U.S. Archbishops will, like Archbishop Sheehan, continue to stand in the way of implementing Vatican II, hoping that Pope Francis’s tenure will be short, as it may well be considering his age.

According to Vatican II, we lay Catholics are entitled to assume this role. It said that the Church is the “People of God”, not the priests and the hierarchy. Yet when Church authorities began to roll back the reforms of Vatican II, we lay Catholics failed to assume our responsibilities as the People of God. We shrugged our shoulders in what-can-we-do resignation, allowing ourselves to remain an adjunct of the Church while the Church continued to define itself as the priests, the bishops and the pope.

To look back to several significant events since Vatican II is to see plenty of reason for us to join reform efforts. We see bishops covering up for pederast priests and then spending vast sums on legal fees to avoid compensating victims, many of whose lives were ruined. We see the Vatican rejecting the use of condoms for HIV prevention. We see continued sanctions on remarried divorcees while retaining the wink, nod and humiliation of the meaningless annulment process. We see the Vatican blocking the beatification process for Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980, a block that was lifted only this year. We see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposing the Affordable Care Act on several grounds including its failure to allow employers to restrict access to contraceptives. We see Cardinal Müller criticizing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “promoting radical feminist themes”. In a most personal way, we have seen a willful Archbishop single-handedly ruin a parish and then refuse to meet with even a single parishioner to discuss his actions.

It’s time for the People of God to step up to the challenge of improving Church governance. As you will see, there are already many working in this vineyard who can show us the way.

Influencing the Selection of the Next Archbishop of Santa Fe.

If we have learned anything from the ANC fiasco, it is that we don’t want another autocrat to be our new Archbishop. We want someone who thinks that lay people can make meaningful contributions to Archdiocese decision-making and will listen to them. Archbishop Sheehan claimed that is the case now but no one is taking that seriously, nor should they.
This point of view and others we wish to be considered in the selection process need to be brought in a useful way to the Apostolic Nuncio. It is the Apostolic Nuncio who will forward recommendations to the Vatican for Archbishop Sheehan’s successor.

We can do so through an organization known as Voice of the Faithful. VOTF is a leading and responsible advocate for Church governance reform. It was created a little over a decade ago when Boston Archbishop Bernard Law was discovered to have protected and reassigned predatory priests, enabling them to continue their crimes. These disclosures eventually led the Archbishop to abruptly move to a palace in Rome so as to avoid criminal charges in the U.S. As Catholic author James Carroll puts it, this incident created an “explosion of Catholic awareness of Church failures”. Very quickly, VOTF grew from a few dozen to more than fourteen thousand people. Today VOTF has more than 100 affiliate organizations and more than 25,000 members. The slogan of VOTF is “Keep the Faith, Change the Church.”

In 2012, the Bishop Selection Working Group of VOTF launched and continues to host a web portal ( enabling Catholics to provide input into the selection of bishops, such as the needs of their diocese, the desired qualities of their next bishop, and the names of potential nominees. This input is then transmitted directly to the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington D.C. who is charged with making formal recommendations to the Vatican on candidates for bishop. In 2012, nearly 200 Chicago-area Catholics utilized this portal and another 200 filled out a related second survey. The lay participation was said to be the best-facilitated volunteer input to a Catholic bishop selection in modern times.

Surely we can and should do as well.

John Doyle who chairs the VOTF Bishop Selection Working Group, advises that though there were few if any acknowledgements of the many letters recently sent by ANC members in regard to Archbishop, that does not mean they were not read by the Apostolic Nuncio and his staff. In fact, Archbishop Viganò, the Apostolic Nuncio, has committed to assuring that all input reaching him from individual Catholics via the bishop selection web portal will be reviewed and that “serious observations may well be incorporated in the developed confidential process.”

Mr. Doyle recommends that as broad a cross-section of Catholics as possible should respond. He also suggests that letters should not focus solely on Archbishop Sheehan’s actions at ANC. That would contribute to an impression that only the disgruntled parishioners of a single parish have concerns. The ANC disaster is over. Our concerns are much broader.

For example, we are all hopeful the new Archbishop will actually consult and listen to the laity. Also, many of our former ANC parishioners are strong supporters of Vatican II and so we hope to have an Archbishop who intends to it as well. These are merely illustrations. Speak from your heart.

Improving Church Governance.

The ANC disgrace occurred because there are no checks on the authority of the Archbishop of Santa Fe, no matter how wrong-headed or venal the exercise of that authority may be. In any other organization, including those far smaller than the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, board members or advisory groups have meaningful roles in decision-making. The chief executive officers report to them. Not so in the world of Catholic governance. An Archbishop shares power only if he chooses to do so. It remains as described in that old expression, “pray, pay and obey.”

This same situation exists in all Catholic Archdioceses, though clearly not all Archbishops are autocrats in the Archbishop Sheehan mold. A strong proponent of improved Church governance is Emeritus Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. He has written two books on the subject that received praise from Pope Francis. Archbishop Quinn proposes a more collegial church as is envisioned in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”. Archbishop Quinn and his book are described in a National Catholic Reporter article in July:

You might also consider getting a copy of James Carroll’s Toward A New Catholic Church published in 2002. You will find it just as, if not more, pertinent today as it was then.

Even if all that you can offer is prayer, you should be engaged in the efforts to improve church governance. Those who are able should also consider supporting VOTF and/or other organizations that advocate for improved Church governance. And we should also consider creating a local organization that could affiliate with one or more of these national organizations for assistance in making our voices heard.

I cannot provide sufficient information here on which you can make an informed judgment on whether to support these organizations. You will have to go their websites and study their descriptions of their work. I have studied the websites of the organizations listed below and I am enthused that such robust efforts in the governance arena exist:

Voice Of The Faithful (, described above, also supports victims of clergy abuse and has other worthy programs such as the bishop selection effort.

Call To Action ( was created in the 1970s in collaboration with the U.S. Bishops but the bishops were not enthused about some of the reforms proposed and backed away. Be sure to read the 1990 Call For Reform which can be found in the History section of the website.

FutureChurch ( advocates for collaborative governance, married and celibate priests, male and female Church leadership and broad access to the Eucharist

The American Catholic Council ( is a quite recently-formed organization that has developed a Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that all will find very interesting. The ACC held a national meeting in Detroit a couple of years ago that my wife and I attended and we found it both instructive and inspiring. Interestingly, the Archbishop of Detroit threatened any priest who attended with sanctions, yet quite a few were there.

There are likely other worthy organizations similar to these that you may discover and want to support.

Finally, in the aftermath of the Archbishop and ANC, it is important for all of us to do a better job of staying informed about what’s going on in the Church today. The National Catholic Reporter does an excellent job of covering developments in the Church and you’ll remember it told the world about Archbishop Sheehan’s actions at the ANC. The Reporter is a well-written and independent source of news and information on all facets of the Church and it has gained some predictable enemies in the process. The Reporter also includes stories of Catholics doing great things around the world that help us maintain pride in our church, despite the shortcomings of some of our Archbishops. The National Catholic Reporter can be read online at It has no paywall though voluntary contributions are requested. Or you can subscribe and get the newsprint version.

As VOTF says: Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

Chuck Wellborn

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