BY ROBERT L. BAKER
Wyoming County Press Examiner
The closing mass at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Auburn Township was part funeral and part celebration for most of the 200 or so gathered Sunday morning.
For Rev. David Betts and Rev. Joseph J. Manarchuck, it was heavy duty ritual as a celebration of Eucharistic communion gave way to a closing ritual procession to the church's baptismal font, bell tower, confessionals, stations of the cross, votive candles, altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Ambo, the Tabernacle and finally to the Altar.
One by one the places within the church that had special meaning for so many were quietly told thanks.
But, no more.
Jerry Burke, who has three or four generations of ancestors buried in the surrounding cemetery said he really didn't know what to make of the day's service.
"I feel like somebody reached in and took my heart out and left this big hole," Burke said.
He admitted he was not happy with the plans of the Diocese of Scranton to close certain churches, and he just wondered what was really behind it all.
"Look," he said. "This church supported itself with 50-100 people attending in recent weeks and donations were fair."
He added that the church was in good condition, even though it did not have indoor plumbing.
"I am 67 and have gone there all my life," he said. "My great grandparents built the present church and, well, I just don't know what to feel."
Rev. Betts, who grew up in Tunkhannock and graduated from its high school in 1986 before entering the priesthood noted that he had been with the parish not quite two months.
He admitted up front that "It is very tempting to say something to take away your tears and the pit in your stomachs, but I'm not going to do that."
"We are here in a very particular way to invite God who didn't have to know pain to help you with yours by continuing to be in all our lives for all time," he said.
"I know from talking with you that many of you think that the greatest thing that could happen right now is that I picked up a piece of paper and read to you- ‘It's all been changed and this church building won't be closing."
He shook his head and said, "That's not true."
"No, the greatest thing that could happen," he said, " is that the Lord Jesus Christ returned and you could see how much of a gift it would be to have the ability to let go."
Still people like Dorothy Maxwell Place who was baptized there 96 years earlier, and Roselyn Bell who was baptized there 88 years earlier, and Alice Dobrosielski who was married there in 1936, felt a certain connectedness that was hard to describe and hard to let go of.
Burke said he just felt empty inside, and wished he didn't, but he could not deny what he was feeling.
It was experienced the week before just 11 miles away where a different priest in the Diocese of Scranton shuttered St. Patrick's Church on Irish Hill in Middletown Township.
Larry O'Reilly, who attends St. Joseph's Church just a little further to the northern reaches of Susquehanna County said he is bracing himself for the same rituals a year from now when he expects his church to experience more of what he knows other Catholics are experiencing.
"It's hard, and it takes you awhile to get used to the idea of your church being closed," he said. "After all you were baptized and confirmed there, and your kid was baptized and confirmed and married there, and you think it should go on forever as part of God's plan."
"I guess my faith should be stronger than that," he added.
Burke said he was a little angry at the priests and at the bishop and maybe the larger church for wanting to take something away from him that until now had never been challenged.
Is he angry at God?
"No, never," Burke said, while also admitting that he wasn't sure what church edifice he might be adopting as his future place of worship.
"I will always be a Catholic," he added, "but right now I'm feeling an emptiness that makes me feel my ‘church' and not God has let me down."
In Wyoming County, the Diocese of Scranton will be having a Closing Mass at St. Anthony of Padua in Stowell on July 12 and at Blessed Sacrament in Centermoreland on July 28.
Burke said, he expects that they, too, are feeling sad, and they should brace themselves for a certain emptiness.