The saga of a former Catholic church, eyed as a possible site for an inmate day reporting center, has erupted into a fervor with the faithful and city leadership upset of any hint that the 180-year-old house of worship could become a place where non-violent offenders of the law would receive treatment and be monitored and educated.
With shouts of "save our church" rising over the din of traffic noise along Hepburn Street at rush-hour Wednesday, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana and Williamsport Bureau of Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman held a news conference to denounce the idea, and it was the roughly 50 or so Catholics joining in the fray that sent an equally clear message of dissent.
Campana said he obtained a permit to stand on the sidewalk outside his former place of worship, the Mater Dolorosa church at 635 Hepburn St., which closed in October 2011, to strongly object to any attempt by Lycoming County government officials to consider using it for the purposes as reported recently in a Sun-Gazette article.
A group of parishoners gather outside the former Mater Dolorosa Church Wednesday for a rally opposed to the county considering purchase of the facility.
"I'm appalled that there would be any interest in a day reporting center for criminals," Campana said.
Campana described the neighborhood as a "challenging location," for police and drug-related offenses and likened opening such a facility at the church to "sending children into a candy store."
He also suggested the city not be used as a "dumping ground," and said the idea should never have been considered.
According to a prior Sun-Gazette article, county officials have explored the creation of a day reporting center since last year. Tours were reportedly taken of a four-story building at 301 W. Third St., among other sites, but no bids have been made on any location. The center might include offices for adult probation and supervised bail, making it easier for staff and the nonviolent offenders who would be monitored but without having to be committed to prison. Other programs mentioned as possibilities at such a facility would be counseling for substance abusers, job training and furthering their education.
Foresman was blunt about his dislike of possibly using the church or any location in the city for such a purpose.
"If the county is involved I know it's not anything the city would like," he said, saying the church and neighborhood were not places for non-violent offenders. "I don't know who is the brainchild behind this but they have no clue of the dynamics of this neighborhood," Foresman said.
Foresman suggested, as did Campana, that a tract of land where the county pre-release center is located would be a better solution.
Campana noted such a treatment center or offices for agency personnel would not be permissible in the city's present residentially-zoned (R3) district, according to what zoning officer Gary Knarr told him.
He then turned his irritation at the leadership of the Catholic church in the region.
"The bishop of Diocese of Scranton can reopen this church," Campana said, referring to Bishop Joseph C. Bambera. "Let the people pray," he said, calling on the city to heal and, should it be the diocese's wish, to sell the property to the parishioners. He asked that a meeting be set up between city leaders and the bishop or diocese representatives.
It's not as though the church grounds have been left vacant, however. The church has been shut down since the closing, and opened for a final Mass last July, but the adjacent Castellano Center has been used as a food pantry by the United Churches of Lycoming County.
Addie Wright, a longtime parishioner of the church, described the proposal as a "disgrace" and a "sword through the heart of our Blessed Mother."
"Plenty of other secular places are in the county," said Frank Fedele, a Catholic who spoke at the news conference.
The dilemma piqued interest of Milton resident Paul Boiardi, whose family is in the lineage of Ettore "Hector" Boiardi, Italian-born American chef, famous for his brand of food products, named Chef Boyardee.
Boiardi, who attends St. Joseph Catholic Church in that borough in Northumberland County, said while his church is under the guidance of the diocese in Harrisburg, he felt their pain and called on those gathered to never give in.
"Don't let them take your faith or your soul away," Boiardi said.