Sunday, March 20, 2016

Vicar General hopes for healing after Lewiston Catholic church funeral controversy

Susan Olp
Montana Standard
March 20, 2016

The Rev. Jay Peterson, vicar general for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, is hoping for reconciliation in the aftermath of a fractious incident at Lewistown's small Catholic parish.

Peterson, who also is parochial vicar for two Catholic churches in Billings, spent 12 years on and off as a parish priest at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown.

“I’m hoping we can move forward and find some kind of reconciliation together,” Peterson said Friday in a telephone interview.

The controversy before the start of the March 8 funeral for 92-year-old Pearl Valach had to do with whether a singer the family had included in the program should take part in the funeral. That singer, Janie Shupe, had been the church’s former music coordinator and choir director for 20 years.

Shupe had resigned her position in August 2014 and left St. Leo’s, unhappy over the way the Rev. Samuel Spiering had handled a situation involving two other parishioners. The men, Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff, had married the year before in Seattle.

Spiering dismissed the men from their volunteer posts in the church and told them they could no longer receive Communion.

The Rev. Daniel O’Rourke, retired priest who had served many years at St. Leo’s and was a close family friend of Valach, had agreed to the family’s request to preside over the Mass on March 8. Spiering, now the parish priest, had given permission for that to happen.

Before the start of the funeral, Spiering told O’Rourke he didn’t want the singer to participate, and O’Rourke disagreed. Spiering felt it important to make a pastoral decision, and O’Rourke suggested he let it go for the funeral and deal with it later.

At that point, Peterson, another longtime friend of the Valach family, arrived and tried to propose a compromise. He wasn't challenging Spiering's canonical jurisdiction over his parish, just trying to look at it from a pastoral point of view, Peterson said.

“I said, ‘How about if Father Dan does the funeral homily, and I would be the presider at the Mass,'” Peterson said. “Father Sam and Father Dan couldn’t quite come to a mutual agreement to compromise.”

O’Rourke found the situation untenable and left the church. When the family resisted having Spiering lead the Mass, Peterson volunteered.

“They seemed relieved, and so we moved forward from there,” Peterson said.

On Friday, Peterson said the situation was painful for him because he knows all the parties involved, including both priests, the family and the singer. He’s been friends with the Valach family for 37 years.

“When things begin to fall apart before your eyes, you try to do the best you can with what you’ve got," Peterson said. "You use what you can in the moment to bring unity and healing and peace.”

He recognizes there is still work to be done. The main responsibility for that falls to Bishop Michael Warfel, head of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.

Warfel, who sees it as a personnel issue, said Thursday that there’s not much he can say at this point other than he’s “trying to pick up some pieces.” Warfel had just returned from a two-week trip on the road and had been unreachable until Thursday.

Peterson feels an urgency to move toward restoring broken relationships.

“Even though we’re coming up on a busy week, I’m hoping things can be dealt with sooner than later to bring healing and unity and peace,” Peterson said. “If I can be part of the healing process, I would certainly love to do so.”

1 comment:

  1. This is a chapter in the story of a community wounded by initial actions of a new pastor. Another story on the situation is at