According to Diana Ortiz, a long-time Red Hook resident and active volunteer with Visitation Church, Father Claudio Antecini announced on Sunday, January 29 that the archdiocese had given him a second six-year assignment at the Red Hook church.
However, a group of unhappy parishioners tells a different story.
“I haven’t heard if he was offered another six years,” explained Michael Arteta, a community member disillusioned with Fr. Claudio and by extension, Visitation Church. “Those are rumors. I also heard [Fr. Claudio and other church leaders] were given one year to get their affairs in order and that he was looking at property in [Pennsylvania].”
To voice and address their concerns, a group of select parish members and ex-members have been meeting in private to discuss issues they have with the church.
Arteta estimated that the unhappy group is made up of around 20 people, but he believes that the number of members who have left the church due to problems with Fr. Claudio is closer to 75.
However, Fr. Claudio claims that the parish community was dwindling when he first arrived, but has grown considerably in recent years.
Unfortunately, neither of these accounts could be verified.
On January 7, when Bishop Neil Tiedemann came to visit his former parish, community members planned to bring their concerns to him. However, no community sources were able to confirm that any dialogue about Fr. Claudio took place or that any resolutions were reached.
When asked directly about the concerns laid out by parishioners, the archdiocese promised to look into it and respond as soon as they could. As of press time, they had not responded.
As for Fr. Claudio, he claims that he is not aware of any conflicts with the community and added, “If someone feels not comfortable talking to me – maybe because I am Italian – they can speak with a sister or a priest or a brother. I am happy to share the contribution of everyone.”
Frustrated members of the church voiced skepticism, noting the recent removal of community member and former volunteer at Visitation, Robert Berrios.
It seems that nearly every time a community member talks about Visitation Church, there is someone else saying the exact opposite – regardless of how seemingly small the issue may be.
Even the church fresco, a recently restored mural the Red Hook Star-Revue covered in December, has stirred up divisive feelings.
“There was no crack down the middle, nothing was falling and it looks the same to me and you can ask anyone at the church,” explained Mary Deconde, a member of the church community who reached out to Star-Revue staff in December.
“Those women that were supposed to fix it, [church leaders] knew them from their Koinonia Community and all [the women] did was touch it up. [Fr. Claudio] mentioned that it would take a year to fix it. All of a sudden, it was done in time for the [celebrity] wedding. More lies on top of lies.”
Arteta expressed a similar sentiment and said, “The fresco wasn’t falling apart. It looks the same, just brighter and cleaner.”
A group of anonymous church-goers disagreed. One member said, “[The fresco] was peeling, that’s for sure.” Similarly, Ortiz noted that while “the top of the fresco looked fine, the bottom was falling apart.”
Division over the former state of a church fresco is only the start of the contention.
In December, the Red Hook Star-Revue published an article about a celebrity wedding, which took place at Visitation Church in October. A number of community members were upset by the Halloween-themed wedding, in particular that people wore costumes deemed “inappropriate” for church. Leaders in the church responded asking people to refrain from judgement.
In the wake of the article, a number of parishioners had a lot to say.
Deconde, angry about the wedding and frustrated by the article, explained, “I was outside that day and there was nothing respectful about it. People were outraged and disgusted with what happened. I was part of a group saying the rosary that day only to be cursed at and laughed at by those who attended that wedding.”
Others echoed Deconde’s concerns, noting direct conflicts between wedding guests and locals church members.
On the other hand, Henrietta Perkins posted a comment online urging others to settle down. She said, “[The wedding guests] all looked beautiful to me, big extravaganza for a Halloween wedding, I thought. Sister Rosanna is very right, ‘Stop Judging.’ ”
As for Ortiz, she feels that “Jesus brought in those 800 people for a reason.” She believes that the church should be welcoming of everyone in the community.
However, Deconde and Arteta both wanted to be clear that the wedding was simply the breaking point in a long history of grievances.
“The pastor thinks it was the wedding we were upset about,” Deconde explained. “It was more than that. The wedding was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was years and years of his nonsense.”
The nonsense, as Deconde puts it, comes in varied forms.
Church-goers recall Robert Berrios as a central member of Visitation Parish.
According to members of the community, he was always there grilling hot dogs at the annual church carnival. They remember him as someone keeping the parish active through gatherings and yearly traditions. And notably, for the past six years, he acted as sacristan of the church. This role involves looking after important items in the church, preparing them for special events, and generally keeping order within the church.
Now, people have said that Berrios was removed from the church. What that really means is less clear, as parishioners and church leaders paint many different versions of events.
According to the disenchanted parishioners, Berrios angered Fr. Claudio when he attended a meeting where people had voiced their concerns and subsequently refused to disclose the names of those in attendance.
Deconde expressed people’s frustration with the situation. “They removed Robert. He was the one who kept us sane,” she said. “My niece attended Breakfast with Santa – something that Robert started – and he wasn’t even allowed to attend.”
Arteta said that Berrios told him that Fr. Claudio had told the sacristan that he “can’t have evil in the church.”
Despite being hurt by the comment, Arteta claims that Berrios apologized, but his effort was unsuccessful. No names, no forgiveness.
On the other hand, Fr. Claudio claimed, “On my side, I don’t have any conflict with anyone in the community.” He added that everyone is welcome and that he wants to speak with everyone about their thoughts and concerns.
Notably, Fr. Claudio did not refer to Robert Berrios during his interview.
One of the major concerns parishioners brought up when discussing Visitation Church is the parish’s financial situation.
Between 2011 and 2012, both The Daily News and the Red Hook Star-Revue reported on the church’s financial situation before Fr. Claudio arrived in 2010.
Both publications cited a $150,000 deficit in the church budget, which was made worse by the church’s annual cost of maintenance, an additional $100,000.
Ortiz notes, “[Visitation is] the poorest church in the diocese of Brooklyn and Queens.”
With small numbers of parishioners in a working-class neighborhood and a massive old building to maintain, it is no surprise that Visitation has financial difficulties.
In order to reduce the deficit, the new priest gave up his salary, held fundraisers, and increased donations, according to The Daily News.
The Star-Revue reported that Fr. Claudio also dismissed the church janitorial staff to reduce the annual cost of running the church. Instead volunteers have taken on the task of cleaning the space.
However, other community members have called into question whether or not Fr. Claudio has done enough work on the church’s financial situation.
“He’s been six years there. He’s done only three fundraisers. The rest is by parishioners,” Arteta criticized.
Unhappy church members have questioned the financial priorities of the church, how much they really have, and whether Fr. Claudio is putting too much of the financial burden on the parishioners.
“Sandy was a blessing for the church,” Judith Dailey, lifelong Red Hook resident and former member of Visitation Church, posited, seeming to imply financial gains from the damage done by the 2012 hurricane.
Ortiz denied the receipt of major financial gains for hurricane damage.
She explained, “The church gained very little insurance money and we were denied money from FEMA, as many others were.” She continued, addressing concerns about a lack of fundraising, “[Fr. Claudio] has motivated the community to get donations by knocking on doors, talking to store owners.”
Specifically, she pointed to the donation of cement for the church’s new basement floors, the labor donated by Fr. Claudio’s brother visiting from Italy, and local businesses – large and small.
Ortiz points out that the community doesn’t have a lot of disposable income, making fundraising a challenge in the community. She noted that “[Fr. Claudio] takes in as many donations as possible and tries to keep everything afloat.”
“We’re willing to take ideas,” she adds. “Come with a plan. We’ll say go for it.”
Deconde, in contrast, feels the church has asked too much of the people. “They are always asking for money,” she expressed. “They do nothing for the church.”
Dailey also criticized the church’s methods of drumming up support from parishioners. “It’s like a guilt trip. He was always saying we’re not giving enough,” she explained.
People also expressed dissatisfaction with Fr. Claudio’s involvement – or lack thereof – with the greater Red Hook community.
During Hurricane Sandy, the church opened its doors to the community, housed meetings, served food, and became an important hub for local emergency response.
Since then, people have felt a distancing between the church and the community. Assorted anonymous parishioners have spoken their concerns that Fr. Claudio has not been more involved with the community.
They noted that priests in the past would support the community by attending events in the local area such as the Tenants Association or Community Board 6 meetings.
But Fr. Claudio claims that being at all of these meetings is harder than people may think.
“I try to be [at the church] because there is a lot of work to do,” Fr. Claudio responded. “We have to clean and take care of the space. This is the situation of the church.”
He notes that the number of meetings happening in the community presents too much of a time commitment for him.
“We are very interested to be part of all the life of Red Hook, but directly, I am a priest and my duty is to help people, encourage people, preach to people,” Fr. Claudio emphasized. “We are happy to be in touch with people in the community.”
All the same, community members have called into question Fr. Claudio’s priorities.
In addition to Fr. Claudio himself, parishioners have raised questions about the order Fr. Claudio and the other religious at the church belong to, Koinonia John the Baptist.
Orders refer to institutions within the Roman Catholic church within which men and women take lifelong vows to devote themselves to the religious profession. Some orders include “lay members” that do not necessarily live out their lives in the community, but participate in the habits, customs, and works of the institution.
More skeptical people have gone as far as to call the Koinonia organization – which includes many lay members of Visitation Parish – a cult. They cite contracts, which require 10% tithing, two-year commitments, and mandatory attendance at Koinonia events.
Ortiz, herself a lay member of the organization, clarified some of the rules members follow. She describes a course that teaches “the love of Jesus,” the signing of a non-binding one-year commitment in which people promise to attend weekly mass and Koinonia events, and the aforementioned 10% tithing.
She explains that there are options for further courses and greater commitments in the future, which culminate in a lifelong commitment.
Defending her organization, Ortiz explained, “It’s a calling you feel in your heart. No one can make you do it.”
Further concerns about Koinonia include members questioning whether church leaders are more devoted to serving the Red Hook community or members of their own religious order.
Community members expressed concerns about “Koinonia people being bussed in from all over Brooklyn and Queens” to attend mass at Visitation. This could bring up concerns about the use of finances at a church that is already struggling to make ends meet. In addition, those unhappy with the church have sited a divide between members of the order and non-members.
Arteta even went as far as to say that “it’s like Koinonia has a problem with Visitation.”
However, Ortiz disagreed with the term bussing, and said, “People come from as far as Pennsylvania, but they aren’t bussed up. They come on their own.”
She believes that those of the religious order and others in the church community can work together. “We’re all the serving the same God. Koinonia, Visitation… ” she explained. “I would like to see all communities in Red Hook be one force in God.”
In addition to these major issues, people also brought up their own personal concerns as well. Questions of who is welcome in the church, what people feel is the church’s responsibility to do, and opinions on how things should be run have left great divisions in the church community.
But while many members claim to be unhappy with the church, there are others in the community who find themselves in between the two groups. They had their own perspective on these matters.
Some of them noted a lack of community involvement and briefly laughed about Fr. Claudio’s long sermons. But for the most part, they voiced a general complacency with the priest and the other members of the religious order, Koinonia John the Baptist, who “work hard to keep the church running.”
Two lifelong parishioners, when questioned, noted that they felt frustrated with the conflict brewing at Visitation. One woman noted emphatically, “This is OUR church,” implying that there is a lack of loyalty in the church community. The other shook her head, saying, “That man, he works so hard.”
Fr. Claudio said assuredly that in December, he was offered six more years at the church.
The archdiocese did not respond to requests for a comment about Fr. Claudio’s future in the church, which leaves a lot of people wondering where to find the truth among all the claims that have been made.
At the moment, there are many fingers being pointed, but if the archdiocese has given Fr. Claudio a placement, very little can be done without conclusive evidence of great misconduct.
In the meantime, it looks like the only option is for the two parties to either communicate or divide.
*Certain names in this article have been replaced to protect the anonymity of people within the church community that feared backlash for speaking their minds. Others remained anonymous for fear of offending fellow community members.