At St. Andrew's Roman Catholic parish in Silver Spring last year, the Rev. John P. Stack insisted on some sweeping changes that produced an outcry from parishioners. The archdiocese transferred him to St. Hugh's in Greenbelt in July.
In January, St. Hugh's parish council leaders, disturbed by the controversy and dissension stirred by changes Stack had wrought in that parish, wrote Archbishop James A. Hickey asking for help. Stack threatened to sue them for libel.
Tomorrow, the archdiocese plans to formally install Stack as St. Hugh's pastor. Dismayed parishioners of the traditionally peaceful parish said they plan to protest against what they perceive as their bishops' insensitivity to their problems.
Parishioners maintain that Stack has countermanded or ignored decisions of the parish council and other responsible lay leaders, discouraged lay participation in some services and replaced established patterns of shared decision-making with autocratic control.
They complain that their priest has alienated parishioners, from altar boys to senior citizens; caused longtime lay volunteers to resign key posts; and driven increasing numbers both from Sunday masses and the parish school.
When the parish council leaders sent Hickey a comprehensive report Jan. 31 on what they saw as the deteriorating situation in the parish, there was no response from the chancery. A few days later, the three leaders who signed the report received letters from Stack's attorney, threatening them with personal libel suits of $50,000 each.
Two weeks ago, in the first parish council meeting he had attended since November, Stack withdrew the threat. But the climate of alienation and fear remains.
In a telephone interview, Stack said that "we're having a few little problems" in the parish, but declined to discuss them. "I'd like to just work them out within the parish and I think that can be done . . . . I hope and pray it can," he said.
"How can you go to confession to somebody that's threatening to sue you?" queried Robert Spear, an activist St. Hugh's member who helps with the athletic program at the parish school and also reads scriptures in parish masses.
"I am very angry with Father Stack," said Clarice Rowe, a parish council member, "but I am also very angry with the archdiocese," for the failure of church officials to respond to parishioners' complaints about problems with their pastor.
When Stack was transferred to St. Hugh's last July he'd had less than a year at St. Andrew's in Silver Spring, where parishioners had flooded the archdiocesan offices with complaints. Stack's subsequent transfer left behind a lawsuit against both him and the archdiocese, brought by two former St. Andrew's teachers, charging "illegal and improper termination" by the priest.The controversy at St. Andrew's had been reported extensively in the Catholic Standard, the archdiocesan newspaper, a step that was in itself unusual since church publications usually do not dwell on internal dissension.
In any event, as St. Hugh's parishioner Larry Crabill pointed out, "Everybody had a picture of what it was going to be like before he got here. That didn't help."
Some St. Hugh's parishioners said they believe the archdiocese resolved the problems at St. Andrew's at their expense. "We're sorry the chancery has treated a pastoral matter as a political one," said Spear.
One of Stack's first moves as pastor of St. Hugh's was to fire the Rev. Richard Maloney, a teacher at DeMatha High School, who had lived at the parish four years. The younger priest said he learned of his dismissal when he phoned the newly assigned Stack to welcome him to the parish and coordinate mass schedules.
Stack also canceled arrangements made by the previous pastor and the parish council for a seminarian to work with parish young people on weekends.
Maloney's dismissal caused "a horrible sense of loss," said Nora J. Lamanteer, chairperson of the liturgy committee. "Fr. Maloney appealed to the families with children, the seminarian to the teens in the parish, so there were alternative liturgies, joyful liturgies," Lamanteer wrote in a formal report of liturgical problems in the parish.
Lamanteer, who has been active in the parish 10 years, eventually resigned as liturgy chairman and began going to mass at another parish.
At his get-acquainted meeting with the St. Hugh's parish council in mid-July, Stack cited canon law to stress that the body was "consultative" only. When the council's agenda called for election of officers, "he told us he was the chairperson and we didn't need anyone else," Rowe recalled.
Jim Foster, who helped found the parish in 1947, quit as chairman of the parish finance committee when, "after 10 years of free access to the records, I was denied access" by Stack, he said.
Stack "doesn't have rapport with the people who have worked to get this parish going," said Crabill.
Not everyone at St. Hugh's found fault with Stack. Diane Timbs, mother of two teen-agers who has "been here since the church was built," said she has been shocked more by the controversy than anything the priest did.
"I've never seen such dissension," she said. "These are people I've known all my life . . . . I've never seen people act this way to a member of the clergy . . . . I don't like to see any dissension toward the clergy."
In the late winter, petitions both supporting Stack and criticizing him were circulated and sent to the chancery.
Tensions rose on Easter Sunday when, instead of the usual Easter homily, Stack read from the pulpit a letter signed by Archbishop James A. Hickey and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas W. Lyons.
The letter, which disgruntled parishioners said was the first response to their complaints from archdiocesan officials, acknowledged "some strong differences of opinion among members of St. Hugh's regarding your pastor."
But the bishops said in their letter that they were convinced "that Father is committed to carrying out his service as pastor in accord with the mind of the church." They appealed "to all the members of the parish to pray and to work with your pastor . . . . " The date for Stack's formal installation was announced the same day.
Last week, Lyons met with a group of concerned St. Hugh's parishioners. Spear, host of the meeting, said the "strongest complaint" that emerged from the group was that "we are angry and frustrated and disillusioned with the chancery office. The strongest complaints were directed at the bishop. The parishioners said, 'You guys screwed up. You had a priest with a problem and you sent him over here.' "
Lyons said the complaints of St. Hugh's parishioners "are being taken very seriously. It's certainly something you just don't brush aside."
He defended the Easter letter as "an effort to respond to the people," but added that "it is clear that for some, they don't see a possibility of reconciliation."
Lyons explained that the scheduling of the formal installation ceremony on Sunday had more to do with his busy schedule than with the archdiocese's view of the controversy at St. Hugh's. The formal ceremony "won't change the fact that he's been their pastor since July," he said.