By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
In 2009 when the parishioners of St. John the Baptist R.C. Church in Long Branch learned the Diocese of Trenton was closing their church to consolidate it with two other parishes to form Christ the King parish, they were upset.
The 500 or so parishioners felt their congregation was strong and self-sufficient, with a board of trustees, a treasury, and well-attended Masses in English, Spanish and Portuguese each weekend.
Unwavering in their commitment and their faith, some parishioners banded together to continue as a community, and with the help of a married Catholic priest, a new-found religion—The American National Catholic Church–and a neighboring Episcopal church, they have become the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Long Branch.
Immediately after St. John the Baptist closed, parishioners held Sunday Masses–complete with familiar prayers, music and Holy Communion–on the sidewalk outside the padlocked church doors, at private homes and then rented space at a nearby social club. Eventually they were invited to conduct their worship at nearby St. James Episcopal Church in Long Branch. They invited a patchwork of visiting priests to celebrate Mass, and when pressed, parishioners set up a TV to participate in televised Catholic Masses.
“St. John’s got stripped of everything,” says Joyce Sprague of Long Branch, who was a parishioner and a trustee of the former parish. According to Sprague, after their beloved pastor was transferred, the parish was disbanded but the congregation was never consulted. “We felt betrayed.”
Some parishioners went to the newly blended Christ the King parish (which celebrates Masses in English, Spanish and Portuguese), others to parishes in other towns, and others turned away from all Sunday worship. But a few committed and determined people formed a parish council with a representative from each of the communities they serve– such as Columbian, Guatemalan and Bolivian–and voted to adopt a new name for their parish: Our Lady Of Guadalupe, known as the Patroness of the Americas. “Finding Father Tony,” says Sprague, “was a blessing.”
Father Tony is Anthony Testa, a Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood more than 30 years ago to marry and has been living in Lincroft with his wife and raising their family ever since. He has always considered himself to be Catholic and worshipped at his nearby parish. He recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service and as a validly ordained priest, continues to administer sacraments such as matrimony, baptism and anointing of the sick, among others. Testa officiates about 80 marriages a year and his clients are often divorced Catholics who are remarrying but are barred from doing so in a Catholic church.
Sprague met Testa at one such wedding and thought he might be interested in helping the newly formed parish. Testa talked it over with his family and accepted the position of pastoral administrator and their priest. “They needed me,” he says.
Despite the language barrier (Testa does not speak Spanish), he studied and practiced, and with the parishioners’ help with pronunciation, now celebrates most of the Mass, with the exception of the homily (or sermon), in Spanish. Most parishioners, he points out, understand English.
“The people were so happy to have me and to worship with me and be a community,” says Testa, who was delighted to be back in his liturgical vestments celebrating Sunday Mass for the first time in three decades.
In the meantime, Angel Martinez, a member of the parish council had been searching the Internet for independent Catholic churches when he came upon the American National Catholic Church.
The American National Catholic Church (ANCC) was established in 2009 as an independent Catholic jurisdiction and has grown to include a handful of parishes in the U.S. Headed by the Most Rev. George R. Lucey, FCM, the presiding bishop, the church celebrates the same sacraments and follows the spirit of reform initiated in Vatican II, which many believe initiated changes to the church to accommodate the modern world. Among the ANCC’s beliefs that differ from the Roman Catholic Church is gay and lesbian inclusiveness, women priests, and not requiring clergy to be celibate.
“We believe this is the future of the Catholic Church,” says Martinez, who was impressed with the ANCC’s all-inclusive philosophy. “It’s all inclusive and there are no restrictions. Priests can be married. Everyone is welcome,” says Martinez, who was a member of the former parish since 1978.
When the parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe accepted the ANCC’s invitation to join them, they relished the support as well as a chance to be part of a religion with the same fundamental beliefs they have always held dear.
Last November, Bishop Lucey installed Testa as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “We are still sharing in the body and blood of Christ and all the things that are important to Catholics after all these centuries,” says Testa. “In the Roman Catholic Church they emphasize the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. They’re too legalistic and forget what the law is trying to accomplish.”
“Although claiming legitimacy as an ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ Catholic Church, this group and the individuals leading or promoting it are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church,” the Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, CM, Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, said in a statement last year. “No Catholic Church is ‘independent’…My greatest fear is that they will take other well-intentioned Catholics down with them, leading them away from the true practice of their faith under the pretense of legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe with its 100 registered families is thriving, celebrating a 12 noon Mass every Sunday at St. James Episcopal Church while they raise funds to build their own church. They also offer catechism classes, Bible study, and a music ministry that features a mix of folk and Latino liturgical music. Father Testa has baptized some 40 babies and the parish is planning their second group of First Holy Communicants.
“The Holy Spirit has been with us,” says Testa. “Things have been going very well. We’ve got the support of the ANCC, a church to worship and as the parish grows little by little, there’s hope for this community.”