Subscribe for 33¢ / day

St. Mary's Catholic Church in Platteville, stung by a plunge in donations following the arrival of three controversial priests, has issued an urgent plea for money to keep its parochial school open.

The 75-year-old St. Mary's Catholic School is subsidized by the church, which has seen weekly donations fall more than 50 percent in four months, said Myron Tranel, chairman of the church's finance council.

The school, with 106 K-8 students, has enough money to operate until at least January but needs an additional $200,000 to keep the facility open through the end of the school year, he said.

The financial crisis coincides with Madison Bishop Robert Morlino's decision in June to bring in three priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to lead the parish. The group is based in Spain and known for traditionalist liturgy and devotion to orthodox Catholic teaching.

Changes the priests have made, including barring girls from being altar servers, led to a petition last month signed by 469 of the church's approximately 1,200 members asking Morlino to immediately remove the priests. In a response letter to the parish last week, Morlino said the priests have his full support and will stay. He chastised parishioners for conduct he called "gravely sinful."

"It grieves me to acknowledge that the reputation of three happy, holy and hardworking priests has been seriously tarnished by rumor, gossip and calumny — lying with the intent to damage another's good name — by some within the parish community," Morlino wrote in the letter, a copy of which the diocese provided the State Journal.

Financial appeal

Monday, about 300 parishioners attended a meeting to discuss the school's finances and hear a financial appeal. Parent Andy Shea said he was encouraged by the turnout.

"It would be very disruptive for children to have to change schools in the middle of the year," he said.

Brent King, spokesman for the Madison Catholic Diocese, said the diocese has "no intention of allowing the school to fail." He said diocesan officials, if asked by the church, would offer assistance in areas such as fundraising. But he stopped short of saying the diocese would provide money to help run the school, calling that an unusual and possibly unprecedented step.

Joseph Hood, school principal, said it will likely be several weeks before the school knows whether the fundraising appeal is successful. Right now, the focus is entirely on keeping the doors open until June. Discussions about the school's long-term future will come later, he said.

Mixed reaction

Morlino invited priests from the Spanish society to begin serving in the diocese in 2006, primarily in the Sauk City area. There are now eight society priests serving seven churches.

Their arrival at each church has ushered in similar changes. They reserve the altar server role to boys to encourage more seminarians. They eliminate participation by laypeople in the distribution of communion. And they preach homilies that supporters find refreshingly forthright in stressing Catholic teaching but critics find short on compassion.

While opposition to the priests has surfaced in other parishes, it has become particularly loud in Platteville, a city of 10,500 people 75 miles southwest of Madison. Fay Stone, a 25-year St. Mary's member, said the priests' decision-making approach seems heavy handed to her. While the Catholic church is not a democracy, some degree of collaboration with parishioners would be nice, she said.

"I know they probably have church law on their side, but just because you have the right to do something doesn't make it the right thing to do," she said.

People are leaving and taking their money with them, she said.

King, the diocesan spokesman, referred all parish-related questions to the Rev. Lope Pascual, one of the three society priests at St. Mary's. He did not return phone calls.

Donations down

Weekly collections had been running between $10,500 and $11,500 prior to the priests' arrival and now average barely $5,000, Tranel said, adding that the finance council created a segregated fund so that donors can give directly to the school now.

The priests do retain considerable support in the church.

"They're teaching morals, and that's what we need," said Barbara Splinter, a 45-year member. "They are following what I've read the pope is for, and he's our leader, so I don't know why people have a problem with it."

The priests are "being treated very terribly," she added.

Mike Worachek said he's disappointed that his fellow parishioners aren't giving the priests a chance. "I think people should grow up and face the reality that people are different and you have to accept them for what they are," he said.