Parishioners, priest at odds in California parish

Public protests are nothing new in Berkeley, Calif. But a large demonstration on June 19 did draw extensive media coverage because of its location and the nature of the conflict.  

More than 100 parishioners and other community members gathered at historic St. Joseph the Worker Church to demand that Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Oakland diocese remove St. Joseph’s pastor, Father John Direen. The bishop was at the parish for confirmations. 

The confrontation reached its climax when the crowd entered the church, disrupted preparations for Mass and demanded to speak to the bishop. The bishop refused, and the police were called in to clear the church. 

“It was threatening. The crowd was out of control,” Father Direen said. 

The protesters stated their unhappiness with Father Direen for a variety of reasons, including his removal of a popular priest in residence at the parish rectory, his conversion of a committee meeting room into a gift shop and weak Spanish-language skills. Father Direen and his supporters counter that the more fundamental reason is ideological; Father Direen is “guided by Catholic teaching” and does not hesitate to speak out on controversial issues such as abortion. 

Historic parish  

Father Direen, 50, grew up in Las Cruces, N.M. He joined the Conventual Franciscans for six years, but opted for the diocesan priesthood instead. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Oakland in 2001, and was named pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in 2009. 

St. Joseph the Worker is a historically significant church in Berkeley. It was established in the 1870s, at the same time the city of Berkeley was incorporated. The current church was built more than a century ago. It serves a middle-class section of Berkeley, and has parishioners of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. 

St. Joseph’s has a history of parish leadership devoted to political activism. For three decades, Father Bill O’Donnell served as pastor and senior priest at the parish. Father O’Donnell, who died in 2003, was arrested 250 times for his involvement in labor, civil rights and peace demonstrations. Father George Crespin served as pastor after Father O’Donnell; after he went into early retirement two parish administrators served the parish. 

Making changes  

But significant changes in the direction of the parish did not come until Father Direen arrived in 2009. The parish had a $1.1 million debt, and some private vendors were threatening lawsuits if they were not paid. Looking to cut costs, Father Direen laid off six staff members and replaced them with volunteers and part-time staff members.  

“There was no easy solution,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “We didn’t want to cut staff, but we had to.” 

Father Crespin, who had been in residence at the parish six years, had been initially welcome to stay, but conflict quickly arose between him and the new pastor. Father Direen implemented changes to the sacramental schedules, which, Father Direen said, Father Crespin disregarded. Father Direen renovated and reinstalled an old confessional so that parishioners could opt for anonymous confessions — previously, only face-to-face was offered — but Father Crespin, Father Direen said, refused to use it. So, Father Crespin was no longer scheduled for confessions. 

The layoffs also caused tension between the priests as well, as one laid off staff member had served as Father Crespin’s maid, another his scheduler. 

Father Direen initially asked Father Crespin to move into another residence by the end of summer, then moved the date up to June 30. The reason, Father Direen said, was that Father Crespin was contacting parishioners, fellow priests and the media to organize an effort to have Father Direen removed as pastor.  

Father Crespin’s efforts resulted in a flood of letters being sent to Bishop Cordileone asking Father Direen be removed, including one from Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. 

Calls to Father Crespin requesting comment on this story were not returned.  

Ideological differences  

While Father Direen concedes that Father Crespin was popular with some, he said his removal and other objections to Father Direen’s leadership are secondary in importance. He believes that Berkeley’s tradition of street protest and his “reintroduction of Catholic teaching” to the parish have combined to raise the ire of some leading to the June 19 confrontation with the bishop. 

Last October, for example, during Respect Life Month, Father Direen preached against abortion. Additionally, he has supported efforts to have prayer vigils in front of a nearby abortion clinic be part of the parish’s social justice ministry. Angry parishioners confronted him and said, “Abortion is legal, deal with it.” One wrote on a donation envelope “the money I was going to contribute to the parish I’m now going to give to Planned Parenthood.” Father Direen said, “Some in the parish believe it is perfectly acceptable to be pro-choice Catholics.” 

Several leaders of the protesters were contacted for a response; all refused to comment. One, Raul Ramirez, said, “We want to get together and figure out what our talking points for the media are going to be.” 

Only one protester, Phyllis Jagusiak, who said she is not a protest leader, agreed to comment. The 84-year-old retired nurse said she was not upset about the more “conservative” direction in which the parish was headed, but that instead she was “shocked” when Father Crespin was asked to leave. She believes that Father Direen is a “sincere” priest but “not a good communicator like Father Crespin was.” 

Calls for new pastor  

Bishop Cordileone is standing by his pastor, and has no plans to replace him. However, he met with protest leaders in July to listen to their concerns and ask them to continue to work with Father Direen towards a resolution. But the protesters do not wish to work with their pastor; a follow-up letter to the bishop dated July 27 and signed by 30 protesters, including Jagusiak, said, “only new pastoral leadership will assure a happy present and vibrant future for St. Joseph the Worker parish.” 

In an Aug. 8 column in the Catholic Voice diocesan newspaper, Bishop Cordileone reiterated his support for Father Direen “as he strives to continue this legacy of the parish he now shepherds and to help it develop to ever more effectively proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, bringing all into the saving encounter with him and living the call to ongoing conversion and holiness.” 

He also emphasized his commitment for the parish to remain “a beacon of social justice and community involvement.” 

Father Direen said that while much attention has been given to his critics, he is grateful for the friends and parishioners who continue to offer him support and encouragement. Sunday collections are only down slightly, and although some parishioners have left, others have come to take their place. “I’m committed to my ministry, and pleased to continue my work on behalf of the Church,” he said. 

Jim Graves writes from California.