By Pat McCaughan,
March 05, 2010
Episcopal News Service
The Diocese of Rio Grande and the Episcopal Church thought they'd received a favorable court ruling in a property dispute involving a breakaway congregation.
Then the judge changed his mind and ordered both parties to appear in 210th District Court in El Paso County, Texas, on March 3.
"He basically said he wants to make a decision based on findings of fact, that he wants this to go to trial, either a bench trial or a jury trial," said diocesan associate chancellor Bill Juvrud in a March 3 telephone interview from his office. No trial date has been set.
"We've been in the middle of litigation on this for awhile," acknowledged Juvrud.
The case stems from the Oct. 21, 2008 vote by a majority of members of St. Francis on-the-Hill Episcopal Church in El Paso to disaffiliate from the local diocese and from the Episcopal Church.
The group, which cited differences over the ordination of women and gays, changed its name to St. Francis on-the-Hill Anglican Church. Shortly after their departure, the group asked an El Paso court to declare them the legal owners of the church property. Juvrud said the diocese, along with the Episcopal Church, countersued. "The position of the diocese and the Episcopal Church is that you can leave but you can't take the property with you, that the church is held in trust for the benefit of the diocese and [wider] church and is to be held by the loyal congregation," he said.
Meanwhile, the continuing St. Francis on-the-Hill Episcopal congregation, made up of those loyal to the diocese and the Episcopal Church, was displaced and began worshipping at the nearby Temple Mount Sinai.
On Feb. 10, 2010, Judge Gonzalo Garcia granted the diocese's petition for summary judgment and denied the breakaway group's motion.
"All the order said was, 'I rule in favor of the Diocese of Rio Grande. I deny the motion of the plaintiff. There is no further discussion'," recalled Diane Butler, chair of the diocesan communications committee.
"It's now official," the Very Rev. Kathleene McNellis, vicar of the continuing Episcopal congregation, wrote in a note to parishioners posted on the church website after Garcia's Feb. 10 ruling. "The judge agreed with the claim of the Episcopal Church that the property on Los Robles does in fact belong to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of the Rio Grande," she wrote.
"I commend each one of you for your patience through this legal 'maze'...your faithfulness over these past months...and your willingness to 'stay the course' in the journey that's been set before us," she wrote.
But on Feb. 26, Garcia entered a new order "saying that after reconsideration, he was denying everybody's motions," Juvrud said.
Additional patience may be required, as the process continues to unfold. "This was not what anybody expected," Juvrud said. "We don't know if the judge wants to make a ruling or if he's decided there's a material issue of fact that needs to be decided by a jury."
Juvrud estimated that the property, which sits on a hill in west El Paso, is valued "in the millions of dollars. It looks out over the Mesilla Valley, with a view of the lower part of New Mexico and far west Texas, a very fertile area, with cotton, pecan and vegetable crops."
The congregation began forming in 1975 and requested parish status from the diocese in 1976, he said. "Our position has always been that the actions of the vestry and everything else they've done to try to take the property away were invalid, because they violated the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church," Juvrud said.
The Rev. Dr. Felix Orji, rector of St. Francis Anglican Church, said he considers the judge's actions "hopeful."
"It's good for him [Judge Garcia] to hear the arguments," Orji said in a March 4 telephone interview. "My preference would be ... to settle out of court. But if all this is going to go to court, then it's necessary to hear all of the arguments and make an intelligent response on the issue."
Although St. Francis took the initial legal action, "we were just asking for the property we believe is ours," he said.
But, he added, "I am hopeful that God's will be done. If he wants to give it [St. Francis] to the Episcopal Church, so be it. Whatever is God's will is what I'm looking for here."