Fort Worth

San Mateo parishioners attend last service at beloved mission

Maria Elena Olvera’s church memories are of baptisms, holy communions, marriages and funerals where she laughed and cried with members of her worship community.

Since 1975, Olvera has attended Catholic services at the beloved mission on Lovell Avenue between Interstate 30 and Chisholm Trail Parkway. As a young mother, she walked with her toddler from her neighborhood near Arlington Heights to attend Catholic Mass.

On Sunday, Olvera and son Jose, now 42, were among dozens of San Mateo Catholic Church worshipers who attended the last Spanish-language service.

Me siento muy triste (I feel very sad),” Olvera said before the service at noon Sunday. “I am very disappointed. … It’s like they are tearing me down.”

Father Robert Strittmatter presided over a solemn Mass that was standing-room only. The pews overflowed with worshipers, and others watched from a crowded foyer. There were hugs, tears, hurt feelings. Police were called after diocese spokesman Pat Svacina was accused of assault.

A man who was at the service said he was pushed by Svacina, who said he merely tapped the man on the shoulder to tell him photos are not allowed at the church. Despite that rule, many members of the church documented the last service with phones and cameras.

A report was taken and has not been assigned to a detective, police spokesman Sgt. Marc Povero said Sunday. “It is unknown whether charges will be filed until a detective has an opportunity to speak to the parties involved,” he said.

‘It is a disgrace’

After the service, worshipers hugged Strittmatter, who twirled the young ones as the community said good-bye to the mission.

The church was a community gathering point for several generations of Hispanic families. Some described how, as children, they would come running to Mass when they heard the mission bells.

“You have witnessed the death of a Catholic Church — destroyed by Catholic leaders,” said Chris Morales, 65. “It is a disgrace.”

Parishioners have been working to save the church since the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth announced the closing. They organized protests, created a Facebook page and filed an appeal to the Vatican. They have vowed to keep fighting, pinning their hopes on the Vatican appeal and Texas civil courts.

“The goal is ultimately save the church, keep the church open, keep the church running,” said Michael Flores, who grew up in the San Mateo community.

Svacina said the church would be locked Sunday.

“We want to be sure whatever property is in there is secure — that the buildings are secure until the diocese determines what the proper thing to do is,” Svacina said.

Many arrived at the Sunday service worried that the building will be demolished. They learned late last week that the diocese received a permit for the demolition.

Svacina, who was outside the church when Mass ended, said there were no plans to demolish the church this week.

“A request has been made to the city to pull the permit,” Svacina said as San Mateo worshipers grilled him about the diocese’s plans.

Several San Mateo worshipers wanted to know why the diocese didn’t talk to church members before shutting down their place of worship.

Asked whether the diocese could work things out with the San Mateo community, Svacina responded, “It is an emotional time, but it has happened many times in the diocese before.”

Coping with change

Svacina said rural churches, other parishes and some schools within the diocese have had to change with communities. He said closing San Mateo has been discussed for years over the tenures of several bishops.

San Mateo supporters said the diocese should have been more frank about its plans as they improved the mission.

“Why did you let us build a million-dollar building?” asked Alma Serna, 52.

The mass ended with announcements from Bishop Michael Olson relayed by Strittmatter: Statues and relics donated to the mission are property of the diocese, money belonging to the San Mateo Mission cannot be used for the legal fight against the diocese and the members of the mission can attend Spanish services at St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth.

“This is a ministry of St. Patrick’s,” Svacina said. “Everybody here is a member of St. Patrick’s Church.”

San Mateo dates to the 1940s and is in the El TP neighborhood. The neighborhood has been in a long transition to commercial development. Only a few small houses remain.

“We were happy with our little church,” said Olga Ramos, 69.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1