Chapter and verse
Clergy at Saint Catherine of Siena Parish preach the Gospel—and the law
Saint Catherine of Siena Parish resembles something of a dollhouse among Catholic churches. Located on Park Avenue, the small, brownish-colored building sits between a laundromat and a thrift store.
Inside the church, which includes a sanctuary and an office, pictures of biblical story snapshots hang neatly on the walls. Everything is apportioned within the space, and everything is in proportion. The sanctuary contains a small electric organ; an altar that holds the Blessed Sacrament adorned by flowers and candles; three antique-looking pulpit chairs; a hanging gold thurible (or incense burner); a makeshift processional cross, and a small prie dieu (or kneeling bench on which to pray).
The congregation is just about six months old and has nine parishioners served by three clergymen: Archbishop Vincent Quaresima, Father Josh Wise and the Rev. Canon John Coverdale (whose role is to hear the confessions). The church was recently recognized by the state as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, charitable organization incorporated under the Old Catholic Province of Our Lady of the Angels.
Quaresima and Wise explained they were motivated to establish the parish church because there was no Catholic presence on that side of town and they hoped to offer an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church.
Theirs is an “Old Catholic” church—emulating how Christianity was practiced in the days of the apostle Peter. Wise and Quaresima wish to bring back the “original” Catholicism, with removal of the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Vatican and the papacy.
Quaresima referred to the church as “a house for sinners, not a hotel for saints” and said, “This is for the people that have left the church, or feel that the church has left them.”
Their congregation may be small, but the archbishop and priest have commanded the attention of prominent Chicoans through a series of legal actions—including three lawsuits filed in the past three years, plus a claim filed against the city for what they consider a violation of their right to religious freedom.
On a recent Sunday, Juliette Frankland was among the handful of attendants at mass. A 54-year-old resident of Chico, Frankland said she grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but when she got divorced, she felt that she should start looking into other religions.
“I found [Saint Catherine] on Craigslist—found it on the Feast of Saint Blaze,” she said. “I’m very pleased; the traditional way of the mass takes me way back.”
Indeed, the mass at Saint Catherine is very formal.
That Sunday, the archbishop faced the attendants while reading from the Bible and gave a quick sermon about the replication of fish and bread. Next, parishioners kneeled, offering solemn prayers in unison. The congregation sang a single hymn, “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” before passing around a basket for offerings. Next came communion, and finally a Hail Mary prayer.
The service lasted about an hour.
Quaresima, raised Roman Catholic, has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Villanova University, where he also studied theology, and a master’s in education from Rutgers. He taught high-school physics and math in New Jersey for 31 years before retiring. From all his experience, Quaresima believes that science and religion are not enemies, and he explained that the Bible is a metaphor, not to be taken literally.
“If you truly examine science, at the bottom is an obvious fact: The universe was not an accident, and it was not created in six days—it all works too well,” he said. “After having taught 31 years of high-school physics, I believe the key to the universe is through mathematics.”
The term “Old Catholic” dates to 1853, when members of the Roman Catholic Church in Germanic countries rejected Vatican decrees, especially concerning the infallibility of the pope; they broke away from Rome in 1870.
Wise and Quaresima said the Old Catholic Church is more liberal. For instance, in a departure from Roman Catholic dogma, they said they don’t believe that homosexuality defies the Bible and do believe that gay people are born that way.
“If you torture the Bible enough you can make it say whatever you want it to say,” Quaresima explained. “We think with logic, science and spirituality.”
When it comes to abortion, the clergymen hold fast to the strict disposition inherent in most Catholicism. They’ve taken their grieving for the unborn to the Chico Women’s Health Specialists clinic where, Wise said, he and Quaresima pray the rosary for those who are experiencing pain.
Clinic manager Kimberly Robinson said they have done more than pray: In March, they took photos of clients at the Humboldt Road facility, which were posted on the church’s online newsletter, The Chico Observer (http://chicoobserver.com), with an article.
Along with their knowledge of Scripture, the archbishop and priest have become conversant in legal tenets. Since 2007, Wise has filed three civil lawsuits in Butte County court. One, naming a DUI program, he withdrew the day before it was set to go to trial. The other two are active: a countersuit filed jointly with Quaresima, and a suit filed earlier this year against a pharmacist and store manager.
Their most high-profile dispute is with the city of Chico. As reported in the CN&R, Quaresima addressed the City Council, at its March 3 meeting, about an incident at the church on Jan. 29 when the power was shut off and the police officer who responded to their call did not intervene. During his statement, the archbishop mentioned “years of abuse from the police” and unresponsiveness from City Hall—“I’m still waiting for your return phone call, madam mayor!”
On March 23, Wise and Quaresima filed claims for damages with the city.
According to their claim statements, an electrician showed up the morning of Jan. 29—a Thursday—to separate the power intake for the church and the other tenant on the property. Sometime after 9:30 a.m., the electricity was shut off. Wise called the police.
Wise and Quaresima expected the officer who responded to the call, Chico PD’s Johnny Person, to get the electrician to restore their power. They cited section 591 of the California Penal Code, which states that any “person who unlawfully and maliciously takes down, removes, injures, or obstructs any line of power used to conduct electricity, or any part thereof … is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison, or by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year.”
Wise claimed he told Persons that he had no 24-hour notice that maintenance would be done to the property. Subsequently, Wise demanded a citizen’s arrest of their two landlords, the electrician, as well as their neighbor. Persons did not comply.
“I tried to explain this [Penal Code 591] to the officer, and that he had to follow the law,” Wise wrote in his claim. “He would hear none of this.”
Quaresima, in his claim statement, wrote that Persons “yelled in my face, his nose more than three inches from mine, his voice at sufficient volume to be heard from across the street.” Relaying the incident to the CN&R, the archbishop said the exchange took place “in front of the Blessed Sacrament—which we believe is the real presence of Christ himself.”
Power was not fully restored until 4:45 p.m. Wise and Quaresima claim the loss of power resulted in damage to a computer in the church and the cancellation of daily services. Their claims assign responsibility to Persons and the police watch commander that shift, Lt. John Carrillo.
Mike Maloney, acting chief of the Chico Police Department, said that the issue of electricity was a civil matter, not criminal, and that it should be resolved between the tenants and the landlord. Also, he said that an officer has a right not to arrest someone. Whether a crime has been committed is up to the officer’s discretion.
“The police officer’s perspective was that a crime had not occurred. If there’s disagreement in the arena, it’s because somebody was not following through with what was agreed to,” Maloney said. “Wise points out that there was an electrician sent out to do some work—doesn’t that suggest legitimacy? There seems to be a lot more to the story.”
Contacted by the CN&R, one of the landlords declined to comment, out of fears of being sued, and the other did not respond to a voicemail message left at his office. Concern about a lawsuit also prompted a lawyer who offered explanations about Section 591 and other matters to request anonymity.
The lawyer said Section 591 deals mainly with matters of domestic violence. (For example, if an abusive boyfriend were to cut the phone cord so that his girlfriend could not call the police during a domestic dispute, Section 591 would be a warranted citation of law.) Regarding the clergymen’s claims of infringement on their right to the free exercise of religion, the lawyer said that for the First Amendment to be violated, the government would have to be an actor in suppressing that right.
The church’s neighbor, Brad Moniz, did speak with the CN&R. He confirmed the property had a single power meter, though his power went off at around 6 a.m. that day.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s a little rude,’ because normally you’d think the electrician would say, ‘Hey I’m turning off your electricity.’ So I walked around the corner and there’s a padlock on the meter,” Moniz said.
He was not present for the police call. He said, “Somebody called me and said there are cops at your house, they’re in a big fight out front.”
City Attorney Lori Barker declined to comment about the claim that was filed. Meanwhile, Wise and Quaresima said they are disheartened about the situation.
“It’s not just the electricity,” Wise said. “It’s the prevention of the religious service.”