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Some at Parish Protest Pastor's Tactics

About one year ago, the Rev. Walter G. Lewis, the parish's pastor, announced a preliminary proposal to expand the church, a move he said was needed because of rising attendance at services. St. Mary's has about 2,500 families as members. The project would enlarge the sanctuary, entranceway and chapel, and add classrooms.

But the project would be expensive — $8 million, by one early estimate. When Lewis began asking church members for donations and pledges, some felt his requests were too aggressive and his homilies too money-oriented.

Lewis says there have been no complaints about fund-raising tactics. "The support that we've gotten throughout the process has been very good," he says, "so I have not heard that at all."

Another man, a member for more than 10 years, disagrees: "When 35 percent [of parishioners] have given and the other 65 percent refuse to give, nobody wants it." (The parish's Sept. 10 progress report says 32 percent have contributed.) About a dozen of his friends have left the parish, he says, and he knows several who have dropped their pledges.

The reason isn't just the money, some members of St. Mary's say. Decisions about the building project are "made in a vacuum," says the first member. "Ultimately, the decision is made by the pastor." Both cite an incident in 1996 when a diocesan council found Lewis had "deviated from acceptable financial management" and several members of the parish finance council resigned.

Parishioners with children in St. Mary's School are especially concerned, the first member says. It was announced in September that the school had pledged $500,000 to the building project — without first consulting parents or members of the school council.

Last week, parents received a letter saying the school had decided to drop its pledge to about $100,000. When asked the reason for the change, Lewis says, "I think at this point they're trying to figure out how best to be supportive, and what they need to do, and how they need to go about doing that."

A progress report on the church's Web site mentions a hoped-for completion date in the fall of 2004. Now, Lewis says, he has no estimates for cost and construction dates. He and the steering committee for the project will be discussing the matter this week, he adds. —

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