COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The new bishop of the Columbus Catholic diocese is getting backlash and angry criticism over one of his first major decisions: to remove the Paulist priests from their position of leadership at St. Thomas More Newman Center on the Ohio State University campus.

Bishop Earl Fernandes, who was installed May 31, said he wanted a partnership with the Paulists. The Paulists said the bishop’s plan was to strip them of autonomy, which they said is against their mission.

At a picnic Sunday, Newman Center congregants expressed their anger over the plan for new leadership after nearly seven decades.

“For 34 years, I’ve walked through that door where it said, ‘All are welcome,'” one member said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be like that anymore.”

“I lost my spiritual home,” said another congregant, Joe Gentilini. “I am devastated. I loved this community. They are very welcoming.”

For 66 years, the Paulists, an independent order of priests based in New York, have operated the campus ministry, but Fernandes is installing a new director at the Newman Center, and refocusing the mission, he said, toward evangelization and promoting vocations, especially attracting young people to the priesthood.

“When people say, ‘God is going to judge you for this, and he will condemn you,’ I realize God is going to judge me,” Fernandes said. “And it weighs on me that some people might leave the church and might go to… If some people leave the church, that does weigh on me, but I am charged to be Christ the good shepherd who goes after the lost sheep.”

The bishop said he offered the Paulists the opportunity to stay on, but as chaplains who would answer to the diocese.

“The Paulists were invited to be partners with us in this mission,” Fernandes said. “They said, ‘It’s not part of our charism to report to a diocesan executive director; therefore, we can’t sign this. Bishop, would you write us a letter terminating the relationship?’ and wanting to be respectful of their charism and grateful for the work that they’ve done, not wanting to create more strife and problems, I wrote them the letter.”

The Paulists Fathers said they were ordered to leave by July 31.

“We wouldn’t have any say in how the ministry happens here, and why would we stay if we can’t be who we are?” said Father Ed Nowak, one of the Paulist priests.

Angry Newman Center members claim they were left out of the process, many saying Sunday they believe the changes are being made at Newman because it welcomes members of the LGBTQ community. Fernandes said this is not true. 

“This is the bishop committing an act of vandalism,” said Dr. David Woods, an engineering professor at Ohio State University and a member of the Newman Center. “This community started off 60-plus years ago and built through selfless priests. They inspired many people to come here who could have gone to other parishes and joined together in acts of service and the students bringing the students in for acts of service to the community and those things don’t happen overnight. They are built step by step, inspiring one person and then another person and another person. It took 60 years to create this and the bishop decided he knows better and didn’t need to talk to us.”

A statement made earlier by the diocese reads:

“This decision was absolutely not motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiments, nor was it motivated by political reasons. Rather, it reflects Bishop Fernandes’ pastoral priorities of evangelization and promotion of priestly vocations, especially in the Diocese of Columbus…”

“They already are not feeling welcome because the bishop never took time to listen to who they are,” Nowak said. “The bishop has just simply said they can go to other parishes without knowing what this ministry means to people, what the Paulists brothers mean to people.”

Fernandes said he is doing what he pledged to do from the day of his ordination when he set out two great priorities — evangelization and promoting vocations to the priesthood. He will install a new executive director at the Newman Center, with a mission of focusing on university students.

Fernandes said he didn’t consult with the congregation because, in part, the diocese expected to receive a positive response.

“Little did I suspect then the reaction that came thereafter,” he said. “I mean, it’s always a shock for people when priests are moved, when pastors who people love are moved, when priests who have done good work are moved,” he said. “I mean, that’s always a difficult transition.”

That transition is made doubly difficult because the congregation is deeply connected to the Paulists priests.

“The bishop has decided he knows better and didn’t need to talk to us,” Woods said. “Didn’t need to find out about the programs and the accolades and the grants for evangelization and developing outreach to potential seminarians and young priests. All of this was already going on in great energy, and he says what? We don’t need you anymore.”

Fernandes encourages the Newman Center congregation to remain open to the changes.

“My message would be to be open, right?” he said. “That is the diocese wants to be close, so don’t give in to fear or to rumor, but really to be open. The priests we are going to send are going to be good, young priests who are going to preach the gospel, so just open your hearts. Do not let fear dominate.”