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Catholic Pastor Open to Anti-War Message, Outside Church  
Church Visit #16

By Nick Mottern

On Sunday, September 7, Harriet Ackerman, Martha Conte, Margaret Eberle, Nora Freeman, Debbie Kair and I visited Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Hartsdale, NY in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy and laity in Westchester County to speak out for an end to the Iraq War.

After being ordered out of the church by ushers who called the local police, and angry comments from a number of parishioners, we ended up having a cordial conversation with Sacred Heart’s pastor, the Rev. Monsignor Patrick Carey, who said he would be open to talking with other area pastors who are considering forming a clergy group to speak out on the war.

We arrived for the 9:30 a.m. Mass at the modern yellow brick church located on the busy commercial thoroughfare of Central Avenue on a brilliant morning, with skies welcomingly clear after a blow-through on Saturday of the diminished Hurricane Hanna.

About 150 attended the service; most were white with about 20 who appeared to be South Asian, perhaps from the Philippines.  There was a wide range in age.

The service began with a call for a confession of sins, issued by Monsignor Carey in a booming, amplified voice that filled the large hall, which has a brick interior, highlighted by green marble.  The altar is under a large circular skylight, and beyond the altar is a chair in which Monsignor Carey took a seat as the Scripture readings began.

As a woman started the first reading, we rose, moved to the right hand side of the church near the front and held up a banner that read:

4,155+ U.S. Soldiers Killed - Tens of Thousands Wounded
1 Million Iraqis Killed - Millions Displaced

Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been DESTROYED
The U.S. has spent $3 Trillion - $4 Billion from Westchester (County)

(Margaret wrote WARS to include the war in Afghanistan.)

We stood silently as people gazed across the wide hall to read the banner.  Monsignor Carey looked at the banner but said nothing. (He said later that he was too far away from the banner to read the words and that he thought we were protesting against him for something he had said or done.  He said he told a parishioner he hoped we had spelled his name right.)

After several minutes, two ushers, moving in front of the banner, told us we had to leave the church, that we could hold the banner outside.  One of them told me that if we did not leave, he would call the police.  I asked him if he would really call the police and he said emphatically: “I really would.”

  As we passed the last few pews, several people sitting at the end of the pews berated us.  One woman said: “This is disgraceful.  This is a house of worship.  You don’t belong here.”

 A man in his 70s asked Martha as she passed: “What about what happened in New York?”, referring to 9/11, and she responded that Iraq was not responsible for the events of 9/11.

In response to a comment from a parishioner that we should not be demonstrating in church, Harriet said: “This is a prayer.”                

Out on the sidewalk we held the banner up, facing traffic, to wait for the service to end.  One of the ushers came out and talked with one of the two auxiliary police posted at the church to assist with traffic during services.  Within a few minutes, two police cruisers and a police ambulance, which is used as a cruiser, arrived to join the auxiliaries.  After the police established that there had been no disruption of the church service and that we did not intend to re-enter the church, they stayed for about 15 minutes and left.

As we waited, a man came out of the church and demanded: “This was important enough to disrupt the mass?”  He said he was 53 and had been an activist and had demonstrated against war but that we had no business going into the church: “Not in God’s house.”  He said we could demonstrate on the sidewalk because that is public property but that the church is private property.  Debbie responded that the church is in a sense public property because it does not pay taxes and thus is subsidized by the general public.  The man went back into the church.

As the service ended and parishioners passed us on the way to their cars, there were a variety of reactions.

An early comment was in the form of a simple thumbs-up, imparted by a woman in her 50s, walking with a man who appeared to be her husband.  She seemed to be signaling support in a guarded way, possibly realizing that some of her fellow parishioners objected to the bannering inside the church.  Indeed, most comments were similar to that of a woman who almost snarled at us that her mother told her that Nazis brought their flags into churches in Germany, and “that’s what you have done today.”  

  From behind us, a man driving a silver SUV slowed down to shout at the top of his voice, his words passing in front of woman in the passenger seat: “Pinkos, wackos, liberal a—holes.” 

 Another man in his early 50’s simply glared at us as he strode deliberately out of the church and thrust a raised a middle finger at us before turning to head down the street.

 A woman in her 40s seemed in agreement with our message as she passed and said only that her nephew had just returned from Iraq.

At the same time, the former activist positioned himself on the sidewalk coming from the church, advising parishioners to pray for us, saying we were misguided to come inside the church with the banner.

Monsignor Carney came out of the church in his white and green vestments and said: “What a mistake that was” for us to protest in the church.  “That was dumb.  You don’t do that in Mass.”  He said people in the church had been killed in the war.  I asked how many had died, and he said one, several years ago.  Then he went back into the church, and the man who had been asking people to pray for us was no longer standing at his station on the sidewalk.

A couple in their 30s, with a daughter about two years old, asked us about the protest.  They were from Switzerland and said that they, as many people in Europe, oppose the Iraq War.  Meanwhile an older couple, from Poland, said that they too oppose the war, and they encouraged us to keep visiting churches.  Hearing that the Swiss couple was against the war, the Polish woman said: “There, you see who would be supporting you…people from Europe.”

One of the police returned, told Debbie she needed write an incident report and asked what group we belonged to.  Debbie told her we have no organizational affiliation that we are simply a group “focusing on people who do not see this (the war) as a faith issue, and we do.”

As the last few parishioners left the church, Monsignor Carney came over to us, dressed in his black clerical street clothes.  Now he was quite friendly.  He said: “I’m opposed to the war.”  He said he is sympathetic with our message “just don’t bring it into the church.”  He is for ending the war in part because of the parishioner who was killed in Iraq.  I asked him whether he would be interested in talking with two other clergy in Westchester County who have discussed forming a clergy/laity group advocating for ending the war, and he readily wrote down his name, address and phone.

Nora Freeman notes:

There was a couple who supported what we were doing – an older man with an accent, wearing an Obama button, and a woman.  She said they were Polish and that people all around the world are hoping for an Obama victory.  The man said that although they don’t necessarily agree with us on all points, ending the war is critical, the most important thing.  While we were talking with them, some other people from the church walked by and expressed their outrage at what we had done.  The Polish couple reiterated their support for us.  We asked if they would be interested in joining us on other church visits, but the man said he usually has to work on Sundays.  They did, however, seem interested in the Saturday vigils on the war held in White Plains.