Turnout for Oregon breakaway church's opening weekend exceeds expectations

This story appears in the Bend controversy feature series. View the full series.
Fr. James Radloff speaks during an information-sharing meeting about the Evangelical Catholic Church on Saturday in Bend, Ore. (Steve Kurzer)
Fr. James Radloff speaks during an information-sharing meeting about the Evangelical Catholic Church on Saturday in Bend, Ore. (Steve Kurzer)

by Dan Morris-Young

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Despite wildfires that forced the evacuation of at least 250 Bend, Ore., homes, despite five Bend-area high school graduations over the weekend, and despite warnings about potential excommunication, more than double the number of people anticipated turned out for an information-sharing evening about the Evangelical Catholic Church on Saturday and for a liturgy Sunday.

More than 350 people attended the Saturday gathering at the small city's Riverhouse Convention Center to find out more about the tiny denomination to which a popular and controversial Bend priest, Fr. James Radloff, moved in April following a yearlong standoff with Bishop Liam Cary of the Baker diocese.

On Sunday, nearly 450 people attended the inaugural Mass of the ECC Holy Communion Church being established in Bend. Radloff will be the church's pastor.

"We only expected about 150 for each event," Radloff said in a news release issued by the Holy Communion formation team. "All of us involved in founding our new parish are overwhelmed by the interest in our new church. It was refreshing to see many old friends and so many individuals who had not attended church in years."

Organizers told NCR that many of those present both Saturday evening and Sunday had left the Catholic church during the decade of Bishop Robert Vasa's episcopate, 2000 to 2011. According to the Official Catholic Directory, the number of Catholics in the 66,826-square-mile diocese fell from just under 40,000 in 2000 to 32,799 in 2010 while the population of the area grew significantly. The 2013 Catholic census there rebounded to 35,266.

Organizers said other weekend participants included curious parishioners from Bend's St. Francis of Assisi Parish and individuals who had walked away from the parish during the months following Cary's Oct. 1 removal of Radloff as pastor for reasons never made public. Praising Radloff at the time, Cary maintained that Radloff was a priest in good standing and had done nothing illegal. Radloff had been barred from ministry from the time of his dismissal.

Radloff appealed his formal removal to the Vatican in late October. In a Jan. 31 ruling, the Congregation for Clergy denied the appeal.

On the weekend before the ECC events, Cary issued a statement warning Catholics that "to receive Communion at a Mass where [Radloff] presides would contradict the meaning of Roman Catholic communion" and would sever that person's full participation in the Roman Catholic Church. In the statement, Cary also underscored that Radloff had "deliberately stepped out of communion with the faithful of Central Oregon" to seek ECC priesthood.

Radloff and ECC Bishop James Wilkowski from ECC headquarters in Chicago oversaw the Saturday evening session and concelebrated Sunday's liturgy.

"I haven't heard any ill will expressed by St. Francis parishioners regarding the people who are leaving to go to the new church," said a former parishioner who asked for anonymity because she occasionally attends Mass at St. Francis. "Most seem to be a little tired and embarrassed -- and, OK, maybe a little annoyed -- about all the publicity over the past eight months. There's some lingering confusion and possibly mild animosity where Father Radloff is concerned, but not much. People just seem to want to get on with their lives. This will certainly be a Pentecost to remember for many of us."

Organizers said they had concerns about protests or disruptions, but none materialized.

Long active at St. Francis and members of the support group for Radloff that met weekly until recently, Chuck and Wilma Hens are now involved in Holy Communion Church. Wilma will be a cantor at 9 a.m. Sunday liturgies at a Bend senior center where services are scheduled for the immediate future.

"It just felt so good, realizing what the agenda of this church is and that we do not have to just wish for reform to come about, that we are witnessing reform that we never thought we would ever see in our lifetimes," Wilma Hens said of the Sunday worship.

"We have not disconnected ourselves from St. Francis," where "we still have a lot of good friends," Chuck Hens said. "We are ... estranged, however."

Founded in 1997, the ECC claims much theology, devotion and custom in common with the Latin-rite church, but it ordains married or single male and female deacons, priests and bishops; accepts gay marriage; fosters receipt of Communion by the divorced and remarried; and allows birth control.

It reports about 1,500 members worldwide in five dioceses, four in the U.S. and one in Ireland.

In the wake of Radloff's April 22 announcement that he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church to seek incardination as a priest of the ECC, the ECC reported a spike in inquiries about reaffiliation from former and current Catholic priests, which was 80 as of May 6.

As of this week, that number has grown to 197 total inquiries on vocational questions, 136 from "current RC priests ... 86 who are currently in limbo as was Fr. Radloff," and the balance, "currently active priests," according to William Morton, ECC director of media and public relations.

Morton said 31 inquiries have been received from women and "one from a bishop." Others have come from "former seminarians and candidates for religious orders."

Prior to the weekend events, the Bend-area Holy Communion organizational group announced that up to $75,000 in matching funds had been raised for donations received prior to July 6. The funds came "from a small group of benefactors -- eight couples, all of whom either are or were members of St. Francis," said Rod Wimer of the formation team.

Wimer said on Monday that $5,000 had been donated prior to last weekend, that $3,898 was given Saturday evening, and that the Sunday collection was $12,590, a total of almost $21,500.

"I met almost everyone as they left Mass," Radloff wrote in an email to NCR Monday. "I didn't finish saying goodbye from a 9 a.m. Mass until 12:30 p.m. Everyone wanted to share their painful story. Many had not been to Mass for 8-10 years."

Radloff said people expressed concerns about Vasa's dictates, about "the Roman Catholic Church's mishandling of the pedophile priest/bishop abuse," and about Cary.

"The majority were quick to point out how they believed I was unjustly treated," Radloff wrote, "from the inappropriate and unfounded May 12, 2013 church bulletin insert by Bishop Liam Cary, publicly reprimanding me in an unprofessional manner, up until his poorly written and offensive recent series of letters inserted into the church bulletins that express an outdated fear-based style of leadership. People gave numerous examples on how some of the hierarchy are driving many people away from the Roman Catholic Church."

Asked if he had received feedback from Roman Catholic priests, Radloff wrote: "Yes, I have heard from Roman Catholic clerics. I am seeing if one of them can move forward in the application and incardination process so that he can fill-in at Holy Communion Church when I am on vacation as we help him to start an Evangelical Catholic Church of his own in his own community."

"I have been invited by Roman Catholics to do home Masses and eventually start other mission churches within the Diocese of Baker and the Archdiocese of Portland," he added. "I have asked Bishop Wilkowski to help me find two more priests to serve at Holy Communion Church in Bend, one who speaks Spanish."

Radloff said he would like to see an ECC Spanish Mass in Bend, and he hopes to travel at times "to do Masses in other towns in Oregon."

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast Correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 20-July 3, 2014 print issue under the headline: Breakaway parish launch draws hundreds.

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