Revolt Simmers at Church

Our Lady parishioners, from left, Bill Shelton, Bill Alston, Juan Stevens, Paul Kearney, Vincent Jordan and Thomas Dunnington.
Our Lady parishioners, from left, Bill Shelton, Bill Alston, Juan Stevens, Paul Kearney, Vincent Jordan and Thomas Dunnington. (Bill O'leary - Twp)
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The order from the archdiocese had been clear: Stop the accusations, the name-calling, the disobedience to the authority of the Catholic Church.

But parishioner Bill Alston, bundled against the cold outside a church, didn't care as he passed out fliers alleging to his fellow Catholics that a leader at his nearby home congregation, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Anacostia, was "disrespectful, insulting and profane" and that the diocese was sweeping it under the rug.

The Rev. Michael Jones poked half of his body out the front door and shook his head disapprovingly. "Shame, shame, shame," he said. "You were told to cease and desist."

"So, everything the bishop says is right?" Alston asked.

"Yes," the priest said. "That's what happens in the Catholic Church . . . . It's not a Baptist church. You obey the priest and the bishop."

"I don't think so," Alston said, turning away to hand out another flier.

The unusual public confrontation last month between priest and parishioner was one more point of friction in a year-long dispute -- Alston calls it a crusade -- in which a cadre of longtime members at Our Lady, one of Washington's historically black Catholic congregations, is in mutiny against the white pastor.

Those members contend that the Rev. Donald Fest has ruled by fiat and has refused to confer about decisions or seek compromise. They don't like the administrator he put in charge, and they don't like the new rules on using the church hall, the famous Panorama Room.

The year has featured shouting matches, a pre-Mass picket line, accusations that Fest is a racist and a petition drive to oust the administrator. A church meeting this month became so heated that one member filed a stay-away order in D.C. Superior Court, accusing Alston of threatening her, an accusation Alston denies.

Fest said he has talked to critics, heard their concerns and has the authority he has been given. He suspended 17 people, including Alston, from usher and church duties -- they can now attend only services -- saying they didn't follow orders or the chain of command. He rejects the contention that he runs the church like a plantation. As a member of an order of priests devoted to black Catholics, Fest has been assigned to black parishes in Baltimore and New Orleans. "This is not a plantation," Fest said in an interview. "If I'm a racist, I have picked some interesting -- well, I didn't pick them -- assignments."

The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.

What they have learned is that butting heads with a 2,000-year-old institution is no easy task. People at every level of church hierarchy have told them the same thing: The Catholic Church is no democracy.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company