Fort Worth

Will the Vatican save San Mateo?

Former parishioners hold makeshift service, pray to save San Mateo Catholic Church

"It's our history. This is where we grew up, in this neighborhood." Watch as parishioners pray for the future of San Mateo, which was closed in November 2016 by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.
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"It's our history. This is where we grew up, in this neighborhood." Watch as parishioners pray for the future of San Mateo, which was closed in November 2016 by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

Outside San Mateo Catholic Church, the parishioners are staging a makeshift prayer service.

With folding chairs placed along the sidewalk, they are praying just inches from the chain-link fence that bars them entry to the church where they grew up and brought their own children to worship.

At times, the prayers are almost drowned out by the cars zooming by on the nearby Chisholm Trail Parkway, but the small group appears oblivious to the rush-hour traffic.

It's been more than a year since San Mateo's last Mass was held on Nov. 20, 2016, and even longer since Bishop Michael F. Olson announced the closure in a church bulletin, saying "mass attendance at San Mateo Mission has greatly diminished over these years."

The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth also noted that discussions about San Mateo's viability had been going on for years..

But San Mateo's church members have refused to accept the diocese's decision.

They've staged their own version of a Hail Mary, using the Catholic Church's canon law to appeal the closure to the Vatican. Canon law is considered the oldest functioning legal system in the Western World.

They're hoping to hear from the Vatican this month, but there are no guarantees.

"It may come out. It may not," said canon lawyer Philip Gray, who is representing the San Mateo parishioners.

Pat Svacina, the spokesman for the diocese, said nothing has changed regarding San Mateo. After the church closed, the diocese agreed the church buildings would remain intact and the property would not be sold until the Vatican issued its ruling.

"The Diocese has responded to the Vatican on this matter," Svacina said in a statement. "The Diocese has not received any indication on when or if the Vatican will respond."

Gray remains firm in his belief that the diocese erred in closing San Mateo.

"I don't believe the diocese is right in their documentation for the closure from a legal point of view, from a canonical point of view and from a pastoral point of view," Gray said.

San Mateo dates to the 1940s, when it was part of El TP neighborhood that is now sandwiched between the Chisholm Trail Parkway and Interstate 30. What was once a working class Hispanic neighborhood has been transformed over the years.

Instead of the simple wood-frame homes that once filled the working-class Hispanic neighborhood, the church is now surrounded by hotels, a large medical building and a few vacant lots.

And San Mateo's followers have always believed the closing was tied to the financial problems at St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth.

The diocese states that San Mateo is a mission of St. Patrick and not an independent parish — something Gray, the canon lawyer, disputes. He said there is enough documentation to show that St. Patrick was a stand-alone parish and believes the Vatican will agree.

As of Dec. 31, 2017, St. Patrick had remaining debt of $1.6 million, which included $200,393.98 of accumulated interest over the three previous years, according to a post on St. Patrick's website.

The proposed market value for San Mateo was listed at $2,154,739, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District.

What bothers San Mateo church members is they were paying off the loan on a new church hall — there was $79,943.49 remaining on the loan when the closure was announced — and they now have no access.

"They paid for the church, and they paid for the Parish Hall," said Yolanda Hendon, whose name is listed on the official appeal of San Mateo's closure to the Vatican.

"I realize the church is just a building," Hendon said. "I know that. I'm not making more of that, but it's our history. It's where we grew up in this neighborhood. Our parents and grandparents paid for the churches. Paid for the Parish Hall."

The former members of San Mateo still meet once a month at Arlington Heights United Methodist Church and vow to keep fighting to save their church.

"We've had people now scattered throughout the different churches of the diocese," Hendon said. "We've had some not go to church because they won't go if they can't come to this church. It's hurt the faithful in a lot of ways."

Like many other San Mateo members, Hendon said St Patrick doesn't feel like home.

"I've been to St. Patrick," Hendon said. "I was married at St. Patrick. It's a beautiful church. I never felt part of the group at St. Patrick."

This report contains information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

Andrea Martinez is 92-years-old and one of the oldest parishioners of San Mateo Church, scheduled to close Nov. 20, 2016. Saddened by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth's decision, Martinez attends her last mass at the church that started out in h

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