A New Beginning

Dan and Bob Begin
Dan and Bob Begin
Featured Audio

SOUND: Church service Ambi UP & UNDER

At the end of a typical Sunday mass at St. Cecilia church on Cleveland's east side, traditional ritual gives way to spontaneity as members of the congregation drift from their pews and begin to embrace each other. This mix of people of diverse ages and racial backgrounds, seemingly recharged by the past hour of prayer and fellowship, makes Christie Okocha smile.

CHRISTIE OKOCHA: I love it absolutely. There's such a sense of community. It's so relaxed, people are so loving, so accepting. And the priest is absolutely the best.

DAN BEGIN: For some of these people, the sign of peace hug is only time they will be touched all week long.

Pastor Dan Begin has led this flock since 1980. In that time, he and his parishioners have also embraced the impoverished Mt. Pleasant community that surrounds the church building, through hunger programs, day care and counseling. But, one year ago, the members of St. Cecilia were informed by Bishop Richard Lennon that their parish would be one of fifty churches in the Diocese that would be closed or merged due to the historic population shift from cities like Lorain, Akron and Cleveland to the suburbs. The Bishop came armed with maps and charts as he spoke to reporters the day after the closing announcement.

BISHOP LENNON: This outward migration is clearly having a major impact on parish finances, membership, and mass attendance, especially in our cities.

Bishop Lennon got few arguments about that. But, a number of parishes have complained that church closure decisions were drawn up by people with no connections to the neighborhoods and no connection with urban life. Dan Begin says that what looks good on paper doesn't always mesh with the experience of people who live there

DAN BEGIN: I have a lot of serious questions. Bishop Lennon knows that my sense of how this is working is not his sense. I guess I can't really expect him to thoroughly understand what I understand after being here thirty years.

Dan Begin's brother Bob heads St. Colman parish on Cleveland's Westside. He too got orders to close, last March.

BOB BEGIN: The pattern of church closings was, as I saw it, almost like someone who had read a management book about franchises, like McDonald's. So, each church is a separate McDonald's. And, if it doesn't have enough customers or if its customers, combined with the customers of another one nearby would work, then why would we have two of them? You don't realize that only a third of the people in this neighborhood have cars, and if it's more than a mile to church, they're not going to go to church.

Bishop Richard Lennon's predecessor, Anthony Pilla, has been quiet over the past year about the reconfiguration of the diocese that he headed for a quarter of a century. But, he's clearly upset about what has transpired since last March, though he refuses to pass judgment on Lennon.

ANTHONY PILLA: This is a lot more than buildings. People on the outside --- bottom line people --- only see buildings and numbers. This is not a corporation. This is a faith community. There's a difference.

Anthony Pilla has a long relationship with the Begin family. As a young man, he was ordained by their uncle Floyd, a former Bishop of the Cleveland Diocese. In turn, Pilla was one of Dan's teachers in seminary school, and he counseled Bob, last year, when the initial church closing announcements were made.

ANTHONY PILLA: I advised him that the church does establish an appeals process. Present the facts in as convincing a way as you can with as much specific evidence as possible, and just trust that if you put that out there, it will be listened to and heard. And that's what happened.

Bob Begin rallied his congregation quickly to file an appeal. Thousands of petition forms were distributed to members and friends of the church.

BOB BEGIN: There were two Facebook accounts that pulled up thousands of people immediately. And we turned in 4000 of those petitions into the Bishop.

And the Bishop reversed his decision on St. Colman….with some conditions. The parish has been given five years to boost attendance and perform building repairs that could amount to a million dollars. Bob Begin says the church is well on the way to meeting those goals --- attendance has steadily risen and the collection has almost doubled. By contrast, his brother Dan chose not to appeal the Bishop's decree…but, he's found a different way to maintain his east side parish community.

BOB BEGIN: He's keeping it together on the internet, and he's expanding it. And they won't need a building, so they'll have no overhead. It's a great experiment.

Dan Begin's experiment is called "Scattered Seed" --- based around a social networking site for parishioners --- sort of a spiritual Facebook, that will keep members in touch with each other. Once the St. Cecilia building officially closes, next month, the plan is to have informal monthly gatherings at a variety of churches across NEOhio. Parishioner Mary Powell likes the symbolism of being a “scattered seed”, but says she’s still got some pain to work through.

MARY POWELL: I haven’t been scattered yet. Right now, I feel like a rejected seed --- rejected by the Diocese. There’s not a whole lot we can do, but make the best of it.

Still, she sees this new grouping as a way to extend her church’s social service mission and connect suburban parishes to the Mt. Pleasant community.

MARY POWELL: What I think is driving all of us is a need to keep the church alive --- the awareness that a church can exist without walls.

SOUND: Return to the initial sound of St. Cecilia parishioners hugging and talking. UP & UNDER

St. Cecilia's last mass is scheduled for April 25th. Bishop Lennon will be there to conduct the closing ceremonies. In addition to nurturing the scattered seeds of his former church, Dan Begin knows he'll be officially assigned to another parish, probably in a more populated part of the Diocese. Another door will open, with another opportunity to take, another soul to embrace. That's just part of a tradition that goes a long way back in his family.

DAN BEGIN: It was just part of our way of thinking. That's what made you happy --- serving people.

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