The unusual public confrontation last month between priest and parishioner was one more point of friction in a year-long dispute -- Alston calls it a crusade -- in which a cadre of longtime members at Our Lady, one of Washington's historically black Catholic congregations, is in mutiny against the white pastor.
Those members contend that the Rev. Donald Fest has ruled by fiat and has refused to confer about decisions or seek compromise. They don't like the administrator he put in charge, and they don't like the new rules on using the church hall, the famous Panorama Room.
The year has featured shouting matches, a pre-Mass picket line, accusations that Fest is a racist and a petition drive to oust the administrator. A church meeting this month became so heated that one member filed a stay-away order in D.C. Superior Court, accusing Alston of threatening her, an accusation Alston denies.
Fest said he has talked to critics, heard their concerns and has the authority he has been given. He suspended 17 people, including Alston, from usher and church duties -- they can now attend only services -- saying they didn't follow orders or the chain of command. He rejects the contention that he runs the church like a plantation. As a member of an order of priests devoted to black Catholics, Fest has been assigned to black parishes in Baltimore and New Orleans. "This is not a plantation," Fest said in an interview. "If I'm a racist, I have picked some interesting -- well, I didn't pick them -- assignments."
The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.
The challenge in commenting on a story like this is, like St. Stan's, like the situation in Belleville, there's always more to the story, and caution is definitely required when we're looking at it from the outside.
But from the outside, this conflict seems, on one level, shockingly needless, which means that it probably touches on something pretty deep. The story tries to make it a huge deal, but it seems to all come down to a religious brother (who'd been at the parish for 17 years anyway), a pastoral associate, being put in charge of managing use of the parish hall. His style is not appreciated by some, and he's tightened up access to a much-coveted church hall space. The entire parish is not up-in-arms, and there is much talk of racism, since the pastor is white, although the brother in question is black. As is the bishop who's dealing with the situation, although the story doesn't mention that (the bishop's race). Nor does it mention that the parish is a Josephite parish. This is just a question of journalistic style - why would the writer/editor go to the trouble to mention that the pastor is "a member of an order of priests devoted to black Catholics" without specifically mentioning the name of the order. I don't get it. Why not?
Anyway, this is certainly a troubling and troublesome situation, and there are certainly some hard feelings and no one seems (from the story) to be adequately dealing with them...but is this the DC St. Stanislaus? Doesn't seem to be.