The Rev. Richard Litzau said that a recent decision by the Santa Fe archbishop seeks to improve the parish at his expense.
“The challenge is that the archbishop wants to increase the number of diocesan vocations,” he said. “So he decided to assign diocesan priests here. That’s what he’s done, and we have to move.”
Litzau, an assistant pastor at UNM’s Aquinas Newman Center, conducted one of his last Masses in the parish Tuesday afternoon during a vigil at the center. Members of the University parish organized the event to “pray that the archbishop will hear us.”
On Jan. 20, Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan announced the archdiocese’s takeover of the parish. The move will force five Dominican priests and brothers to move out of the center by July 1.
Chuck Wellborn, a member of the center who helped to organize the event, said that although parish members respect Sheehan’s decision, they wanted to express their dissatisfaction with it.
“We’re very unhappy that the archbishop has chosen to come in without any prior discussion with us, probably without any good understanding of what these priests who serve us are all about and what our community is like,” he said. “He has just chosen to say that he wants all of our staff to go away and to put in someone of his own choosing.”
Wellborn, who has been a member of the Newman Center since 1959, said the takeover will crack a long-standing tradition.
“The Dominicans have run this parish for the last 62 years,” he said. “These priests have been here anywhere from two to five years.”
The archbishop’s decision will also hurt community members who attend the parish, Wellborn said.
“We have four priests and a brother here and they’re going to be replaced by only two priests,” he said. “One of them just got ordained in the summer. We’re losing an awful lot in terms of experience and knowledge.”
During the vigil, attendees held lit candles outside the parish and delivered prayers, including The Lord’s Prayer. A Mass was then celebrated in the Newman Center.
Wellborn said the Newman Center is beneficial for the University because the Dominicans are experts in interacting with students, faculty and staff members. He said the center is one of the few Dominican churches in New Mexico.
“Priests can be either just priests of the archdiocese or priests of religious orders,” he said. “We don’t have many churches in the state that are run by religious orders. This is one of the most prominent, and it will just be like the other churches if the archbishop cannot be convinced that this is a mistake.”
The parish will respect whatever the archbishop decides, Wellborn said. He said that at this moment, he demands that Sheehan explain himself to the center’s members.
“All we want the archbishop to do is to come and talk to us and to let him describe to us why he wants to make this change,” he said. “We will do whatever he wants in terms of a program or whatever. Just let us find his needs. We are willing to go out of our way to satisfy his objectives, but we want to keep our Dominican staff.”
Last week, supporters of the Dominicans in the parish started an online petition at Change.org that aims to “ask for a meeting to dialogue with Archbishop Sheehan about his concerns and hopes for the parish so that we can develop a strategy to increase vocations without the removal of the Dominicans.” The petition already has 295 signatures by press time and needs 205 more to attain its goal.
But Litzau said he is pessimistic that Sheehan will change his mind.
“I’m sad,” he said. “I’m going to be assigned to another parish somewhere, and I’ll continue to serve God. That’s what priests do. They serve God and preach the Gospel. But part of my life is moving.”