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MODESTO, CA: Death of a Church

Death of a Church

By Amy Whitebee
Staff Writer
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, CA (June 18, 2005)--When Jane Chynoweth looks around St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, memories flood her mind. The church is where she raised children, socialized with lifelong friends and worshiped for more than 40 years.

Now it is closing.

'It is devastating,' said Chynoweth, 85, a founding member of the Modesto church, which will have a 'farewell' service Sunday. The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin aims to sell the property, which could bring up to $1.5 million.

The church - one of two Episcopal congregations in Modesto - owes $150,000 to the Fresno-based diocese, parishioners and clergy said. The closure is based on dwindling attendance - and giving - at the Carver Road church, which draws about 50 Sunday worshipers.

'For many years, (this church) donated a lot of capital to the diocese,' said Ken Hicks, 59, of Stockton, a vestryman. 'Now that they are in need to build it back up, the diocese has turned their back on us.'

San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield and other diocese officials did not return calls. Duke Golden, chief financial officer for the diocese, confirmed the church is closing and that it owes funds to the diocese, which has closed four other churches in the past year.

The doors at St. Dunstan's will be locked after June 26, Hicks said.

The distinctive church, with its stained-glass windows and arched roofline, went up in 1975. Members began meeting in a multipurpose room at the site in 1965. Back then, the church - named for a 10th-century monk who became the archbishop of Canterbury - was on Modesto's northern edge 'in the middle of nowhere,' Chynoweth said.

The property, on 2.17 acres south of Standiford Road, is owned by the bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin. The property - zoned for residential use - probably will be sold and the buildings demolished, said the Rev. Tony Morello, St. Dunstan's rector.

'They built (this church) with their own money and blood and sweat and tears,' said Morello, who will be out of a job after six years at the parish.

'I just watch (older members) cry and it breaks my heart,' added John Murphy, 35, of Modesto. 'I'm wondering where my family and I will go. ... I have certainly grown to love the members of this church. They made me feel special from Day One.'

Neighbors say they will miss hearing St. Dunstan's bells, which toll at noon and 6 p.m.

Diocese officials and clergy told parishioners several months ago that the church might be sold, but some thought they could keep it open if they came up with the money.

Parishioners haven't been privy to church financial records, they said, though they were told the church was in debt, owing $150,000 in assessments to the diocese and back pay for Morello.

Some members of the largely older congregation feel church officials were not upfront with them.

'Nothing is said completely, nothing is explained completely,' said member Louisa Bryant, 68, of Modesto, who wonders how the church fell into debt. 'I'm so unhappy and so hurt because it's done and nobody did anything about it.'

In the past year, the diocese has closed churches in Stockton, Fresno, Madera and Mammoth Lakes because of declining membership, Golden said. The diocese has 52 churches from Stockton to Bakersfield.

St. Dunstan's was about to open a day care center when members learned this spring the church might close. Members invested $13,000 of their own money in materials and city permits for the center. The center was within a couple of weeks of opening when the bishop ordered them not to proceed, said member Lloyd Teel, 78, of Modesto.

Teel had to turn down an $8,900 grant the church received from the Stanislaus County Children and Families Commission for center improvements. It was hoped the center would attract families and younger members while addressing a community need.

'It looked like we were going to make a profit each month (on the day care center),' said Teel, who developed the center's budget. 'Plus, it's an important ministry.'

Diocese officials hope St. Dunstan's members join Modesto's other Episcopal church, St. Paul's, or attend Episcopal churches in Riverbank, Oakdale or Turlock, Golden said.

'We always work on the concept we are not diminishing the Episcopalian presence in Modesto, but ultimately would be enlarging it,' Golden said.

St. Dunstan's members asked the diocese for funding from the sale of the property to help them start a new church, but diocese officials said no, Hicks said.

Transportation is an issue for some parishioners, who said they might attend Lutheran, Catholic or other Episcopal churches.

Schofield, the bishop, said last fall that the San Joaquin Diocese was among those that had lost members and money since the election in August 2003 of a gay Episcopal Bishop, V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. The election divided the denomination.

'Rectors and bishops report that we have lost orthodox traditionalists from our midst due to the anger and frustration they have experienced with (the Episcopal Church U.S.A.) despite the solid stand of the diocese (against the ordination),' said Schofield. 'Simultaneously, there have been those who are angered at me personally for my stand ... (and) have left and withheld pledges.'

Teel thinks the whole diocese is experiencing a financial pinch. 'They have had to cut here and there in order to make ends meet,' he said.

Golden and Morello said they don't think Robinson's ordination is why St. Dunstan's lost membership. Morello said people began leaving in 2003 when he became engaged to a woman from another parish whose children he previously counseled, and to whom he'd provided mediation services before her divorce.

Attendance went from as many as 250 to about 50 people, Morello said.

'I think the decline in membership has a direct bearing on that,' Morello said. 'When you have rumors and controversy in church, people leave.'

Current members did not wish to comment on what they saw as rumors. The Rev. Michael McClenaghan, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church referred questions to the bishop. 'He is ... much more intimately aware of the reasons that the people of St. Dunstan's are ending their ministry in Modesto,' he said.

Regardless, members think the diocese should have stood with St. Dunstan's. Membership already had been dropping in recent years as the church's graying congregation aged. 'We haven't been growing, but then, a lot of churches aren't growing,' said Chynoweth.

The church was founded by members of St. Paul's - then in downtown Modesto - which in the 1960s was outgrowing its space. It began meeting in 1962 at a Modesto mortuary and then the Sylvan Club building before breaking ground on Carver Road.

Members pitched in, constructing and painting buildings and planting landscaping. A member built the church's wooden altar, railings, pews and columbarium for cremation ashes. The ashes of that man, Ambrose Lein, are among those now in the columbarium. Some ashes have been retrieved since the closure announcement. Unclaimed ashes will become the responsibility of the diocese, Morello said.

He and church members can't take Bibles, prayer books or other items from the church. Members don't know if they will be able to take plaques or other items donated in memory of loved ones.

Chynoweth comforts herself that St. Dunstan's is only a name. But 'we are a very close-knit church family,' she said. 'When we come to church on Sunday ... it's like coming home. You care about one another, you feel for one another, everyone knows everybody.'

Members, she said, now feel like 'lost souls.'

'You get to know (members) spiritually and emotionally in an intimate way,' Morello said. 'It's hard to say goodbye when you have been so involved in their lives.'

Some members saw the end coming, they said. Others hoped something would stop it. Most remain shocked.

'I haven't lost my faith, but I've lost my trust,' Bryant said. 'What happened to the spiritual part of being a family, being a church? This is not moral, not ethical.'

Some mourn the closure like a death, they said. Chynoweth is relying on her faith.

'(There is) a greater plan than what we understand,' she said. 'I don't know where we're going from here, but I am sure God will be with us.'


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