Sunday, December 23, 2007

Early Reports from St. Nicholas, Atwater

The Rev. Fred Risard, Vicar of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Atwater, California, wrote a letter on December 20 to John-David Schofield, the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. The letter asked for clarification regarding the purpose of Bp. Schofield's visit to St. Nicholas on December 23. Among the concerns voiced by Fr. Risard were that Schofield intended to attempt remove him as Vicar or possibly even announce the closure of the mission church.

Part of our discussion of this situation included encouraging those who were able to join the people of St. Nicholas as a sign of support. A few of the group that gathers here at Jake's place were there, and have offered us some early glimpses of what happened at St. Nicholas this morning.

From Mark:

Well, the Bishop showed up -- along with tons of supporters for Fr. Risard. The Bishop presided over the Eucharist, and preached the sermon. I'd report on what he said, but I just couldn't sit there and listen to him, so I got up and walked out and waited in the hallway (with about 7 other people) until the sermon was over. The Bishop did not join in passing the peace, or give out communion, preventing another possible personal crisis on my part.

At the end of the service, the Bishop stood up and said he had not come to St. Nicholas to fire Fr. Risard or close down St. Nicholas, and then he proceeded to do just that. He said that because of declining attendance at St. Nicholas, he could only afford to send them a supply priest "occasionally". What will happen to Fr. Risard was left unspecified. Fr. Risard then stood up and gave an eloquent denunciation of John David and his policies. I hope that Fr. Risard finds someplace on the internet to post his remarks, because it was truly inspiring. Fr. Risard, you really know how to speak truth to power -- thank you. Fr. Risard received a standing ovation, and the bishop slipped out the back door during the closing hymn.

Continue to keep Fr. Risard and St. Nicholas in your prayers -- they need them now more than ever.
From Leslie:

...I thought it was interesting that he (Bp. Schofield) brought body guards with him. I also thought it interesting that he sneaked out the back door and did not process down the isle. One of his body guards stood in front of the rail as we left the church. What in the world did he think we where going to do??? Such Drama!!!

Fr. Fred did an excellent job of expressing himself. I was so proud of him. The ex-bishop knew exactly where Fr. Fred stood. Fr. Fred received a standing ovation after his address!
From Andee:

Bp. Schofield did come to Atwater today, preached and celebrated (with Fr. Fred concelebrating and distributing the eucharist). At the end of the service, Schofield stood up and said that there had been much speculation about the reason for his visit, and he wanted to reassure everyone that (1) Fr. Fred had not been fired and (2) St. Nicholas was not being closed. Then, just as everyone was starting to take a tentative breath of relief, he said the other reason he wanted to come was to tell them that Atwater was no longer bringing in enough money to pay a full time priest, and that instead the diocese would be sending them supply priests occasionally. In other words--Fr. Fred wasn't being fired, he just wasn't going to be paid any longer, and the diocese wasn't even going to keep a steady part time priest, just send supply priests periodically.

Then, in his concluding remarks, Fr. Fred told the full and emotional story of the ways the diocesan leadership--most specifically, he named Bp. Schofield and Canon Gandenberger--had deliberately and maliciously undermined the health of the mission, fostering division and schism instead of love and compassion. Tears, prayers and applause from those who witnessed this!

Among those of us who came to be there in support of Fr. Fred and St. Nicholas were myself, members of Holy Family (Fresno), St. Francis in exile (former members of St. Francis Turlock), St. Michael's in exile (former members of St. Michaels in Sonora), St. Paul's Oakland, St. Aidan's San Francisco, Canon Bob Moore (Diocese of Olympia - also both husband of Bp. Nedi Rivera and Presiding Bp. Katherine's appointee to provide interim pastoral care to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin), Fr. Michael Backlund (representing Bp. of Northern California Barry Beisner), and Remain Episcopal attorney Mike Glass. At least four of us present are on the Remain Episcopal Board.

They were surrounded by our love, and by the prayers of thousands of people from around the world.

Fr. Fred has no plans to leave, and I understand that funds from outside the diocese are being made available to make sure he is paid.

After the service and a wonderful extended coffee hour, a number of us helped them distribute bags of food and turkey certificates to a low income Housing Authority project in the area, where we were greeted with enthusiasm and warm Christmas thanks.

The morning ended with several of us joining Fr. Fred and his extended family (parents, two brothers, nieces and nephews) for lunch.

Emotional, difficult, heartwarming--and Christ was very present.
I believe Kirstin, who was also present, will be offering us some thoughts about this soon. I'll keep updating this post as new reports come in.


UPDATE: Kirstin has posted her impressions of former Episcopal bishop John-David Schofield's visit to St. Nicholas. Here's part of it:

...After the closing prayer, before the hymn, John-David spoke again. He said something to the effect of, “You’ve heard rumors that I’m firing Fred and closing the mission. This is not true. Your attendance is dropping; you can’t afford a full-time priest. We’re keeping the doors open—and will send a supply priest on occasion. This is the sole reason for my visit.”

You know the expression, “gobsmacked?” We all knew we’d been manipulated and lied to. Come on. How he expected to come in there and say that, and have people be unified anywhere except against him, is beyond me.

Fred stood up, and let him have it. He was emotional, powerful, truthful, and strong. He said, (I’m paraphrasing), “you know, I didn’t want to go here. You had to stir things up one last time. You come in here with intent to divide people. We are about the work of reconciliation.” He said he’d been silent out of fear for his job; the bishop had just given him absolutely nothing to lose. Vicars risk a lot by speaking out; they serve only at the pleasure of the bishop. Fred said that other vicars had contacted him, supportively and wanting to know what they could do for themselves now as well. They’d felt—rather, been—pressured to go along with John-David; they didn’t truly want to...

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