By Tim Jimenez

BRISTOL, Pa. (CBS) – Sixteen Catholic parishes held their final Sunday services. They’re slated to merge with nearby churches on July 1st as part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s plan to restructure its parishes.

Among the churches affected is a St. Ann Church in Bristol Borough where worshipers had a tearful goodbye but vow to keep the 108-year-old church open.

It was standing room only at St. Ann Church as a community gathered to celebrate together for what appears to be the final time before merging with nearby St. Mark. Father Tom Morris, in his sermon, finished by saying “God Bless.” He then raised his right fist and declared “St. Ann Strong!” to a standing ovation.

Father Tom Morris greeting parishioners after mass. (Credit: Tim Jimenez)

Father Tom Morris greeting parishioners after mass. (Credit: Tim Jimenez)

“I wish (Archbishop Charles Chaput) could have sat here today and seen how many hearts he broke,” said Ralph DiGuiseppe, a leader of the “St. Ann Strong” movement, an organized effort to keep the parish open.

“It’s not a building, it’s our home,” DiGuiseppe said. “We love this place. We do everything we can to keep this church open.”

Parishioners have rallied since the May 31 announcement that St. Ann would be one of the 16 churches to merge with nearby parishes. This is part of the process known as Parish Area Pastoral Planning that has been going on since 2010. Church officials say the mergers are needed because of factors that include a shift in the Catholic population, a high density of parishes in a small area, along with declines in Mass attendance, Sacramental activity, the availability of priests, and a review of facilities.

“It’s been a bad decision,” DiGuiseppe said. “(Archbishop Chaput) should sit here and see how many lives he ruined today and how many families he’s destroying.”

DiGuiseppe said they appealed the decision to the Archbishop which he said has not been answered. “St. Ann Strong” hired a consultant from Boston and two attorneys in Rome to appeal the decision.” They are currently raising money for the legal fight DiGuiseppe said would cost “$25 to $30,000.”  He said extra money collected, or not used in the legal battle, will be donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

st ann 1

(Credit: Tim Jimenez)

The hour-and-a-half service started at 10 a.m. and after it ended there was a long line of parishioners to greet Father Morris. Many of them reflected fondly and with heavy hearts.

“It’s very, very sad,” said Anthony Duva, a member of the church for 53 years. His two daughters were both baptized and had their weddings at St. Ann. “It’s like a member of your family passing away.”

“I don’t believe that if Jesus were alive this would be happening to Catholics who have been so faithful to their church,” said Marge Murphy, a relatively new parishioner who became a member last year. “I was welcomed with open arms and they’ve made me feel as though I’m a part of a family.”

Fred Pileggi spoke about St. Ann as a community that never left his side.

“I was in the hospital – had cancer. That priest came in, he sat there for almost an hour with me,” Pileggi said with tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what else to say.”


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