By Lee Hockstader,
Saturday, July 5, 2003; Page A03
McALLEN, Tex. -- Nothing seemed amiss when 60 parishioners from the Holy Spirit Catholic Church here gathered at dusk the other day on the church's pink-bricked patio before a burbling fountain. They clasped hands in a semicircle, bowed their heads for the Lord's Prayer and, accompanied by two guitars and a tambourine, sang hymns in Spanish as the scorching Texas sun succumbed to an evening softened by shadows.
But the tranquility of the moment was deceptive, for the gathering was, in fact, a protest. The parishioners are at the forefront of one of the most venomous confrontations between the Catholic Church and organized labor since Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York faced down striking gravediggers in 1949, sending seminarians in to dig graves for 1,000 unburied bodies.
On one side of the dispute is a handful of parish churches in the Rio Grande Valley, including Holy Spirit, whose lay workers unionized last year -- a virtually unheard-of step in the American Catholic Church. On the other side is the powerful local bishop of the Brownsville diocese, Raymundo J. Peña, and his top aides, who condemned the contracts when they were signed and moved vigorously against the union.
It is an anomalous clash, casting the church and organized labor, traditionally warm allies, as rivals in one of the poorest and most heavily Catholic corners of the nation. And it is being played out in blazing local newspaper headlines and escalating mutual accusations, at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is trying to surmount the staggering effects of sex abuse scandals nationwide.
"It's almost like an intra-family dispute with some labor union trappings attached to it," said David Hall, executive director of Texas Rural Legal Aid, which is representing some of the unionized lay workers.
The family fight burst into public view June 18 when a parish priest, Ruben Delgado, newly assigned to Holy Spirit by the bishop, arrived at the church for his first day on the job and fired four of the unionized workers.
The fired workers received little explanation. One, Ann Cass, had been a key member of Holy Spirit's administrative staff for 22 years and played a central role in building the church's new building in the 1980s. Another, Edna Cantu, a young secretary who is several months pregnant, had been dismissed last fall from yet another parish church shortly after she and her co-workers unionized there.
The United Farm Workers (UFW), which represents the employees, received a court order temporarily halting the dismissals; the church then placed them on paid administrative leave. In the ensuing uproar, Delgado, the priest, resigned as pastor of Holy Spirit after a week. Aside from a written statement defending the firings as an administrative reshuffle designed to replace some paid staff with volunteers, he did not communicate with his parishioners and never celebrated Mass there.
Peña said he had no hand in the firings, noting he was out of town when they took place. He has reaffirmed his opposition to unionizing parish lay workers, whose minimum wage of $7, he said, is well above the average in the Rio Grande Valley.
"I honestly do not believe that is necessary or beneficial for church employees in the Valley to join a labor union," he said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post.
Hundreds of parishioners at Holy Spirit have accused Peña of engineering the firings to break union contracts that he publicly denounced as "invalid in church law" because he, as bishop, was not consulted and did not approve them.
To protest the dismissals, hundreds of Holy Spirit's parishioners have boycotted Sunday Mass for the past two weeks, holding communion services instead on the church patio and staging nightly candlelight vigils. They have urged other parishioners to divert contributions from the church to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the fired workers.
"It's one thing to suffer for the church; it's another thing to suffer at the hands of the church," said Dora Saavedra, a communications professor at University of Texas Pan-American who chairs Holy Spirit's parish council, an advisory body. "We want the staff reinstated -- period."
Holy Spirit was one of five parish churches in the Brownsville diocese that signed union contracts, but it has become the focal point of the dispute. In contrast with the mostly poor and rural churches of the area, Holy Spirit has a relatively affluent, well-educated congregation of 3,300 families.
From its perch in a predominantly middle-class neighborhood of McAllen, the church has been a vocal advocate for liberal causes in this city of 120,000 -- higher wages for low-skilled workers; an increase in the local sales tax; a reconfiguration of the town council to benefit poorer neighborhoods. It has also been at the forefront of demands that Peña disclose more information about priests accused of sexual abuse and about the diocese's finances -- demands that the bishop has resisted.
In the face of an open rebellion at Holy Spirit, Peña has condemned the protesters as a small group of firebrands who have challenged his authority and manipulated the parish. In an interview, Peña acknowledged he has become the lightning rod for the protests but said, "It's ridiculous to say it's me against them. I am their bishop, their pastor, and I have no ill will or animosity against anyone."
Peña, 69, was the bishop of El Paso before he arrived in Brownsville in 1995. His diocese is a long, thin strip running from the Gulf of Mexico west along the Mexican border, a sun-blasted, heavily Hispanic territory. Since his arrival, Peña has aroused resentments with a leadership style that is variously described as hands-on, micro-managerial, autocratic and preoccupied with secrecy.
The genesis of the current crisis can be traced to 2000, when the bishop abolished a 20-year-old pension plan for the diocese's approximately 1,100 paid lay workers, including administrators, religious education workers, secretaries and others. Rather than receiving monthly checks upon retirement, as many were expecting, they received one-time checks in early 2002 according to a formula that favored older employees over some younger ones who had worked longer.
The diocese did offer an alternative -- a defined contribution retirement plan, similar to a 401(k) -- which diocesan officials characterized as an improvement. But some church employees were indignant, insisting that the abolition of the pension plan would do particular harm to lower-paid workers.
Responding to those concerns, five parishes signed union contracts with the UFW a year ago, establishing pension plans and grievance procedures for approximately 50 lay workers. One of the parish priests, Jerry Frank, former pastor of Holy Spirit, said he did it to protect his staff from what he considered Peña's arbitrary management.
"I told him I had to protect my workers from him, and that he treats people as objects rather than as human beings," said Frank, 61, who has since been transferred by the bishop to a small, rural parish.
Diocesan officials denounced the union contracts, saying they corrupted what was akin to a marital bond between paid lay workers and the church -- even though parishioners point out lay workers at the Vatican itself are unionized. In a communique sent to all parishes, Peña warned them against further inroads by the union.
Unions "do not make sense in covenantal relationships of trust and love," Robert E. Maher, vicar general of the diocese, wrote last July in an e-mail to a lawyer who protested the diocese's policy. "There is no place in the Christian community for divisions along the lines of self-interest, and that means, among other things, no unions."
Maher, who is Peña's second-in-command, also threatened to slash funding for unionized churches, according to several pastors. He wrote to one pastor that the Catholic Extension Society, a grant-giving agency in Chicago that funds poor parishes, had also refused to help unionized churches -- an assertion that the Extension Society vigorously denied. Peña, saying his position was "misunderstood," reinstated the funding after he learned the pastor had ties with the Extension Society.
"It sounds to me like the vicar is trying to bring these guys into line by making that kind of threat," said Richard Ritter, the Extension Society's vice president. "Those decisions are up to the bishop completely."
Peña, in his e-mailed statement, said: "I have always been an advocate for social justice in Texas. I have supported labor's right to collective bargaining, and I support it now. Cesar Chavez [founder of the UFW] was my friend, and as a young priest I supported his organizing efforts."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company