The new priest took charge of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church more than a year ago. Week after week, parishioners said, George Kuforiji changed their church in ways they didn’t think he ever could.
They talked to him, wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Portland about their frustrations, resisted change and protested during Mass.
But after a while, some couldn’t take it anymore. They left the Southeast Portland church for other parishes or their own spiritual groups. Others said they would stay to the bitter end.
The parish where some had prayed for decades was slipping away.
St. Francis is one of the oldest churches in Portland. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.
Parishioners have marched in the Portland Pride parade, fed and given shelter to people experiencing homelessness and worked to make the traditionally patriarchal institution more inclusive of women. For several years, a banner hung above the church steps that read “Immigrants & refugees welcome.
Now, the banner is missing. Vestments and one of several treasured photographs of the homeless community that had lined the walls of their parish had been piled in a trailer headed for the dump.
Many felt the new priest aimed to better align St. Francis with the archdiocese, who some feel is out of step with Catholics in Portland.
A discord exists between Catholics and church leaders across the country. Bishops pushing for more uniformity among parishes, including Portland’s Archbishop Alexander Sample, were appointed by a different, more conservative pope than the one currently sitting at the Vatican.
The Roman Catholic Church is rooted in tradition and hierarchy. Jerry Harp, chair of St. Francis’ pastoral council, is struggling to understand how he relates to this structure of authority. It was this hierarchy that was roiling his parish.
Harp considers himself a devout Catholic. He starts every morning with mediation and prayer and prays the Hail Mary at least once a day. He tries to attend Mass every Sunday. When he was in his 20s, he said he wanted to follow every rule he could. Now he questions how those rules bring him closer to God.
"Some would say 'Well you have to relate to the authority structure by following them to the letter,'" Harp said. "Well how do you know that? It's perfectly legitimate for other people to have other answers."
Long-time parishioners knew the answer. They didn’t like being told how to worship.
This was their church.
Valerie Chapman served as St. Francis’ pastoral administrator since 1993, leading the congregation alongside several priests over the years. Some parishioners said seeing a woman in such a role is what first attracted them to the parish.
Chapman retired in 2017. Monsignor Charles Lienert came out of retirement to take over as administrator, but only for a year. When his assignment was over, George Kuforiji was assigned to St. Francis by the archdiocese and took over July 2018.
Parishioners said the changes he made were almost immediate.
For years, St. Francis used inclusive language in its scripture readings. With references to God, for instance, they avoided using “he,” “lord” or “king” and instead used simply “God” or “creator.”
Kuforiji switched readings to traditional scripture, no longer allowing the new wording.
St. Francis outlined their values in a community commitment that parishioners would read after the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Kuforiji replaced the pamphlet and cut out the community commitment.
Parishioners brought their own copies and still said the words.
Shaffer and Ghormley noticed the vestments were missing, along with the large “Immigrants & refugees welcome” banner. Black and white photographs of homeless people served by the church were stripped from the walls. Both said Kuforiji told them he didn’t know what happened.
June 30 was a Sunday, and Mass was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. But before hymns could be sung, prayers could be said or the bread and wine consecrated, parishioners protested.
Days earlier, they’d found cherished items in a trailer headed for the dump. Now, 16 mostly gray-haired parishioners stood on the church steps facing Southeast 12th Avenue. Most were dressed all in white and held the large black and white photographs that had been stripped from the walls of the church.
Videos taken by parishioners that morning show them holding signs and singing as they walked through the front doors. Some wore T-shirts during Mass that read “Jesus resisted the Pharisees” on the front. The back of the shirt read “Question authority.”
During the prayers of the faithful, a time for community prayer, parishioners prayed for what happened to the vestments, yelling from the pews.
Kuforiji stood at the pulpit with his arms outstretched, silent.
In the pews, one woman stood with her face buried in her hands. Another said the protesters should respect the church they were standing in. She walked off. A few others followed her out.
At the end of Mass, Karen Mathew, former music director at St. Francis, took the pulpit to lead the congregation in song. The song began, and Kuforiji walked away.
On one side of the aisle, parishioners shook maracas, hit tambourines and clapped their hands. They sang loud. On the other, parishioners were quiet.
After the song, Melinda Pittman, a parishioner who has been at St. Francis for 30 years, took the pulpit. She said she had walked out to talk with Kuforiji when the song began.
“I said that for the last year we have been wanting real dialogue,” Pittman said. “I said we are being abused. We are being abused in the Catholic church by this priest and by this archbishop.”
“Boo,” a man yelled from behind the pews. “This is a holy priest.
“You don’t belong here,” parishioners yelled back.
Kuforiji was near the back of the church. There, another long-time parishioner, Rebecca Boell, confronted him.
“How can you be a priest?” she said. “I’ve been here over 15 years. You’ve been here a year.”
“Do you have reverence for God?” Kuforiji asked her.
Parishioners say they’ve shown it is the authority of the church they do not revere. They resist authority and find God in their resistance.
I honestly suspect that this sort of in-fighting is going to be seen more & more within church groups. The Southern Baptist Convention has had some massive issues with this recently, as well, but there issues are more along the lines of social justice and critical theory -- listening to Dr. James White can give you a lot of up-to-date insights on what is going on there, although he si not a member of the SBC.
The Vatican II council has really had major ramifications that have just rippled endlessly down the line. This is one of them.
It opened up cracks in the unity of Catholics that can be exploited, and this is really the fruit of that.
August 8th, 2019