Merger Protests Shadow Galante

By Trudi Gilfillian
Press of Atlantic City
August 15, 2008

WILDWOOD - A small but persistent band of protesters follows Bishop Joseph A. Galante wherever he goes.

On Thursday, Galante, head of the Diocese of Camden, came to St. Ann's Church here to celebrate a Vigil Mass for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and then the procession to the ocean for the Wedding of the Sea.

The protesters took their places about a half-hour before the 7 p.m. Mass was to begin.

As worshippers arrived, the group of five quietly stood outside the church holding signs expressing their opinions about Galante.

One demanded his resignation, others pleaded for the future of their parishes.

Frankin Township, Gloucester County, resident Leah Vassallo said the group has traveled to about 20 events since learning St. Mary's Church in Gloucester County

and other parishes including St. Joseph's in Salem County will be closed.

In April, Galante announced a plan to close multiple parishes, citing a changing church family and a decline in the number of priests available to serve the diocese's parishioners.

"If we know he's going to be somewhere, we'll be there, too," Vassallo said. "We want our message to sink in. We're not going to go away."

The message: Leave St. Mary's alone.

The small church has about 200 families, but Vassallo said it is a vibrant, active parish of dedicated parishioners.

Members appealed and Galante went there to hear the church members' concerns, but so far the church remains on the closing list. He made a similar appearance at the Church of the Assumption in Wildwood Crest, a church also slated to close for at least part of the year.

Vassallo's 15-year-old niece, Cecelia Trace, also of Frankin Township, joined her aunt for the protest, holding a sign that called Galante a businessman rather than a holy man.

Trace said the plan to reduce the number of parishes would drive people from the church, particularly younger Catholics.

"This is making it harder for people," Trace said. "And I love my church."

The closing plan has also sparked questions about Galante's actions.

Vassallo's sign, for instance, read, "Galante + Follieri = Church Closings."

Follieri is Italian businessman Raffaello Follieri, a developer now under indictment, charged with money laundering and wire fraud.

Follieri purchased a townhome from Galante in 2006. The purchase is not connected to Follieri's charges, but the case gave unhappy parishioners another opportunity to question Galante.

"It doesn't pass the smell test," Vassallo said of the property sale.

Many of the parishioners arriving for Thursday's service found the protest and the signs unacceptable.

Some told the group to leave, calling the protest inappropriate given the sanctity of the occasion.

But the group had its supporters.

One of the other protesters received a hug from another woman sympathetic to the cause.

Vassallo said she understood the anger of some, but said their motive was not to take away from the Mass or the procession that followed.

"We're not protesting any of the events, just the bishop," Vassallo said.

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