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Trenton bishop’s planned move out of town provokes dissent

trentonbishop012311_optBY PAT SUMMERS

A little story about a man's new house sparked opposition that's still growing after its publication last Sunday in the Trenton Times. The man is the bishop of the Trenton Diocese, and his house-to-be is in a semi-rural area of Lawrence Township virtually next door to Princeton. In fact, it has a Princeton address.

No, Bishop David M. O'Connell will not be living in Trenton, where the neediest of his flock probably live. Instead, the plan is for him to move into an "austere" home on Carson Road in Lawrence. Located on a wooded road with occasional large houses on sizeable properties, the house reportedly has four bedrooms, 3½ baths, a family room, dining room, eat-in kitchen and a vaulted LR — all on 5.8 acres.

The diocese, which includes the counties of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean, reportedly paid cash — $550,000, or more than a half-million dollars — for the spread. This occurred a short time after Bishop O'Connell publicly appealed for $1 million to support Catholic education.

Since 1924, Trenton Diocese bishops have lived at 903 W. State Street, Trenton, in a large, three story brown brick building on a corner lot. According to the Times story, the house has "ornate trim, large glass windows and sweeping verandas." External signs of its "spiritual ties" include a cross carved into a piece of embedded stone and a statue of St. Francis.

trentonbishop2012311_optRetired bishop John M. Smith lived there for the past 13 years, and Bishop O'Connell is living at the rectory of St. James, Pennington, while the new house is being painted. Diocese spokesperson Rayanne Bennett, quoted in the Times story, said that "The West State St. house is in disrepair and would take a considerable sum to update" and Bishop O'Connell "did not want . . . that money spent on a house he didn't want to live in."

She said, "Bishop O'Connell prefers a smaller, more austere home and he found one that he likes and will be more comfortable in."

Following the Jan. 16 publication of the new-house story, the Times printed three letters of objection. Individually, each was strong; together, they made a powerful case against the bishop's move out of the city.

The first writer, a woman who describes herself as "a long term resident of Trenton by choice" — she has lived less than a block away from the State St. bishop's house since 1977 — became incensed about the projected move because "I live in this neighborhood and he's doing it dirt!"

OConnellDAVIDM060410_optDr. Jane Elaine Rosenbaum, an adjunct English professor at Rider University since the 70s, described Bishop O'Connell's decision as "self-serving." She theorized that if he is not comfortable with the Trenton house, he may not be comfortable with the kind of diversity that Trenton represents either.

The neighborhood he's abandoning, she wrote, "is a white, black, Hispanic, professional, working-class community of owners and renters," in sharp contrast to the "racially homogeneous, property-owning community of means" where he's moving.

Referring to Trenton taxpayers who have long subsidized municipal services for the tax-exempt property "now being abandoned," she also cited the seeming contradiction between the diocese's identification of ethnic diversity as a priority and Bishop O'Connell's move out of the city after his predecessors lived there for 87 years.

"The US bishops are becoming both irrelevant and poor examples of the ‘Good Shepherd,'" wrote David L. Ziegler of Hopewell Twp., in the second letter to appear. He described the move as "most disturbing on so many levels," including the "spending of $550,000 of Trenton Diocese (read, our contributions) funds."

The move, Ziegler wrote, "sends a terrible message to the people of Trenton, who need visible signs of church support, not retreat from the city."

Titled "the new austerity," the third letter, from Rosemary Dey of Hamilton asked, "Is it any wonder that the Catholic Church is in crisis, closing schools and combining parishes, when we read [about the house purchase for $550,000], considered "buying down"?

Does this set a good example for parishioners struggling to get by in this economy, who donate money to the church every week, Dey wrote; will they be glad their bishop has a Princeton mailing address? "Perhaps he could put a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter on his 5.8 acres."

Her letter was just the first step for Dr. Rosenbaum. Contacted by numbers of people who applauded it, she has been mustering support for further action against the bishop's move. It starts with rounding up 1,000 signatures on a petition (text follows).

A group of Catholics who also object to the bishop's new house are drafting a message observant Catholics may put into their collection envelopes in lieu of donations.

Rosenbaum advises those who want details on the campaign against the bishop's move, including sites where the petition can be signed, to check this Facebook community page: "Keep the Catholic Bishop in Trenton!"


To the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi:

We, the undersigned, respectfully request that the newly appointed Bishop of Trenton be asked to reconsider his decision to move to a semi-rural home on six acres in an exclusive neighborhood. He should choose instead to make his home in the City of Trenton where the Diocese's bishops have lived and served for the past eighty-seven years. Purchased in 1924 for this specific purpose, 903 West State Street has a cross etched into its brick work, a magnificent private chapel, and a stately presence for all to see. In the spirit of Catherine of Siena, we ask that he return to his rightful place, among all of the people — black, white, brown, yellow, rich, poor, working-class, professional — to serve as a symbol of unity and beacon of hope for a city that he is now seeking to abandon for greener pastures. Let not "Lawrenceville with a Princeton address" (the house at 53 Carson Road) — be the Diocese of Trenton's Babylonian captivity.

Comments (4)
4 Tuesday, 25 January 2011 14:45
Michael Skiendzielewski
Wait a minute, there’s plenty of rural homeowners down there in South Jersey with an abandoned vehicle, trailer or Winnebago or two on their property. I’m sure one resident may wish to donate one of those fine, antiques to the Trenton Diocese, arrange for a local tow-truck operator to haul that valuable vehicle to a vacant lot somewhere in the Trenton city limits, and Voila!, the Bishop is sitting mighty pretty and, the best part, living among his faithful.

For those of you familiar with that fine old TV program, “ALL IN THE FAMILY”, just remember what Archie told Meathead:

“Nobody wants to live in Jersey, but somebody has to.”
3 Tuesday, 25 January 2011 12:33
regularly publish this new address so anyone needing access to his highness will know the secluded address where he can be found. Who is paying the utility bills?
2 Tuesday, 25 January 2011 11:25
John Shuster
Remember when priests lived a transparent fishbowl existence of 24/7 accessibility in the rectory? Things have changed. More and more priests treat the parish like a place of work and choose to live far away from the parish in apartments or their private homes. This makes it much easier for them to discreetly entertain male visitors.
1 Sunday, 23 January 2011 18:23
Bruce Novozinsky
The Diocese of Trenton has over 800,000 members in FOUR counties not just Mercer, so Bishop David O'Connell can live where ever he pleases. O'Connell is the Bishop OF THE Diocese OF Trenton, not the Bishop of Trenton city alone. The city does not hold exclusive rights to the Vicar. The "Lost sheep and people do better with shepherds nearby" accusation is a moot point raised by recent critics because the Bishop could set up shop over Surf Taco in Toms River if he so chooses and be right next to his "flock" in a larger diocesan demographic than the one in Trenton. This move was long overdue because of the condition Trenton and the current Bishop's residence and its residents place themselves in. Those most recent in their Bishop-bashing need to take a hard look at the accountability-factors before accusing His Excellency for bowing to instant gratification while Rome burns (okay, Trenton burns) but who is holding the match? It's not the Church I can assure you of that. Trenton is blood deep in gangs, crime and unemployment and yet somehow this is O'Connell's fault after a month and a half? How many gang-bangers were at midnight Mass on Christmas? It's time Trenton started to look at its future and stop trying prove a point that has long passed them by by electing and supporting incompetent leaders like Mayor (for now) Mack while boo-hoo'ing everyone from business owners to the Catholic Church from moving on and moving out. " One blog-poster wrote: " The Diocese goes where the money is. The Catholic church leaders don't want to be anywhere near those who are truly in need of help. They send checks to African missions while ignoring the third world in their own backyard. NO CATHOLIC SCHOOLS IN THE CITY?”

The blogger is wrong. Trenton Catholic is where…? St Raphael’s is where…? Notre Dame is where…? Call it the ‘burbs but there is ample busing to each of those institutions and there is no gang infiltration in the parking lots or bus stops there and this is why the diocese choose to relocate schools and consolidate. The "new guy" is fair game and should to be held accountable when he trips up but the coin has two sides and Trenton residents refuse to account for the possibility that the environment cultivated, support or turn a blind eye to has forced churches, businesses and families to flee Trenton in droves.

Bruce Novozinsky
Upper Freehold, NJ

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