ROBIN HUEBNER REPORTS: Ex-Roman Catholic priest helms alternative parish in Fargo

Robin Huebner, INFORUM
Church service
From left, Marlene Christenson, Mary Margaret Nelson, Frank Lenzmeier, Father Lew Troska and Randy Reichert share peace with each other during worship at a St. Odilia Church service Sunday in downtown Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FARGO - A breakaway Catholic church here is targeting disenchanted Roman Catholics, and it’s ruffling the feathers of some of the faithful.

St. Odilia American National Catholic Church bills itself as a nonjudgmental parish welcoming everyone, whether they are gay, divorced, disenfranchised or in recovery.

The Diocese of Fargo says Catholics should not attend this schismatic parish, and anyone who does so could be excommunicated.

“Those are empty threats,” said the Rev. Llewelyn Troska, pastor of St. Odilia, “threats that are thrown about freely.”

Troska was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Crookston, Minn., in 1986, but says he took a leave of absence in 1990 after struggling with the church’s stance on homosexuality and marriage in the clergy, among other things.

More than 20 years later, wanting to return to parish ministry, Troska has found a home in the independent Catholic movement.

“I’m very happy where I’m at. I feel like this is where God has called me,” Troska said.

The alternative church

On any given Sunday, 12 to 20 people attend the noon service at St. Odilia American National Catholic Church, held in a small rented chapel inside St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 670 4th Ave. N. in Fargo.

St. Odilia also does joint prayer services with St. Mark’s and is beginning to offer services in parishioners’ homes, to be followed by a celebratory meal.

Troska described his parishioners as mostly retired, well-educated professionals who learned of the church through word of mouth.

Colette Werlinger said she was drawn to St. Odilia because she wanted to be more in touch with world views.

“I felt I needed renewal for deeper spiritual growth,” said Werlinger, who was once a Roman Catholic nun.

“This is a church, not perfect, but forgiving, accepting and compassionate,” she said.

St. Odilia became a recognized parish of the ANCC in February of this year, one of seven so far. The ANCC also has parishes in Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and two in New Jersey.

Troska says none of his parishioners who are former Roman Catholics have been contacted about excommunication.

Church differences

According to its website, the ANCC was founded in 2009 as a contemporary expression of Catholicism.

It holds beliefs similar to the Roman Catholic Church, including the Sacraments, Apostolic Succession and that there is only one God.

But it is radically different in many ways.

It welcomes married, female and LGBT priests and people of any sexual preference. It believes in gay marriage and family planning and disagrees with the absolute authority of the pope.

For Troska, it’s a good fit.

“In essence, I’ve always been a rebel,” he said.

Troska said ANCC parishes support the work of Vatican Council II, opened under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s, which called for a more open church, where the congregation is more involved.

“It’s like someone opened the window to let in some fresh air to what had become stale,” Troska said.

Instead of the top-down kind of hierarchy, “It’s more like a circle,” he said. “The clergy is at the center, and the congregation is around it, but they’re all on the same level.”

Randy Reichert, parish administrator, liturgist and musician at St. Odilia, said many of the changes brought about by Vatican II have been undone.

“The final straw,” he said, “were the changes in liturgy that showed me the Roman Church is not about welcoming people but more about keeping people in line.”

Last year, the Vatican altered the English version of Catholic liturgy in hopes the translation would be closer to the original Latin.

Reichert also referred to a recent flap in which a 17-year-old Catholic boy in Barnesville, Minn., wasn’t confirmed after his priest learned he supported gay marriage. The priest said Lennon Cihak chose to opt out of confirmation, but the Cihak family said it was the priest’s decision.

“When you refuse to confirm a 16-year-old kid, that’s not very pastoral,” he said.

Reichert also doesn’t understand why the Roman Church isn’t accepting of people who are struggling with their sexuality or are in the middle of divorce.

“If you’re going through something difficult, why should you be denied God’s grace?” he said.

Troska finds it liberating to be away from the Roman Catholic Church.

“The hierarchy of absolute control is stifling,” he said. “It’s become a religion of going through the motions.”

Troska’s path

Troska grew up in northwestern Minnesota in a family of eight children.

While attending St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville, Minn., he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. He remains cancer-free but has pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs, as a result of chemotherapy and radiation.

In 1986, he received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s, and was ordained a priest for the Crookston diocese.

Troska served at Sacred Heart church in East Grand Forks for two years and at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Bemidji for

two years.

He says it was during his time in Bemidji, in the late 1980s, that several parishioners in East Grand Forks lodged complaints about him with the Crookston diocese.

Troska said those parishioners questioned his maturity level and the friendships he had with several young males in the parish, though he said the relationships were neither sexual nor inappropriate.

However, he said then-Bishop Victor Balke was troubled.

“He was concerned I might violate the vow of celibacy,” Troska said. “It was a concern I later agreed with.”

Troska said Balke suggested a leave of absence from the diocese, which Troska agreed to in 1990.

Contacted by The Forum through email, Balke said his memory of the events is limited.

However, Balke said, “He (Troska) was given a leave of absence to attend to some personal issues. After that, we entered into discussion about his return to ministry, but then another issue arose and the discussion did not resume.”

Troska said Balke and current Diocese of Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner also asked him repeatedly to petition the Vatican for dispensation, or doing away with, his priestly faculties.

“They cannot force you to petition Rome, but they can shame you into it,” he said. “I respectfully declined.”

Troska said he received certified mail from the Diocese of Crookston a while back, which he refused to sign for, and thus never opened. He believes the letters were informing him of his dismissal.

Monsignor David Baumgartner from the Crookston Diocese confirmed to The Forum that Troska had been dismissed from the clerical state in May 2011.

Troska said the experience has allowed him to come to terms with his sexuality. He said he is gay but celibate.

“I do not have a partner, and I’ve never been married,” Troska said.

Priest or not?

Troska is recognized as a priest within the ANCC, as he goes through a two-year incardination period.

The process, he says, is extensive. An applicant must first produce all transcripts and documents relating to education, training and professional experience. Personal and professional references are required. Both a psychological evaluation and criminal background check are performed.

Troska says all ANCC priests are well-educated people, with professional jobs. His full-time occupation is as domestic operations manager at SK Food International Inc. in Fargo.

“We’re worker priests. That’s how we support our ministry,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Church views neither Troska as a priest nor St. Odilia as a parish.

In an announcement in the Diocese of Fargo publication New Earth, dated May 2012, Troska is referred to as a “defrocked priest.” That announcement states that then-Bishop Samuel Aquila wanted it to be known that anyone who attends Troska’s church risks “an automatic excommunication” and possibly other penalties.

Bishop Aquila has since moved on to become Archbishop of Denver, and Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck is serving the Fargo diocese in the interim. In a statement released to The Forum, Bishop Kagan said he “completely stands behind the May 2012 statement of Bishop Samuel Aquila.”

Troska admits he is a defrocked priest, in the sense that he’s been dismissed from the clerical state in the Roman Catholic Church. But he says he’s fit to be a priest in the eyes of the ANCC.

Monsignor Baumgartner says because of Troska’s dismissal, he’s not allowed to wear ecclesiastical garb, preside at any public liturgy or be addressed by titles used by ordained ministers.

Troska wears such garb, ministers in a chapel and his followers refer to him as Father Lew.

Future vision

Troska said the ANCC, with which St. Odilia is affiliated, is one of what could be hundreds of Catholic organizations nationwide not in line with Rome. And he said they’re here to stay.

“ANCC parishes are solid,” said Troska. “We’re not fly-by-night.”

The church was given the name St. Odilia for several reasons. One of the reasons is St. Odilia is the patron saint of the eyes.

Both Troska and Reichert said the church is their vision for the future, one that they hope will grow.

But for now, they’re happy with where they’re at, in their rented chapel.

“We’re not into this for the glory, per se,” said Reichert, “but for the glory of God only.”


Readers can reach Huebner at rhuebner@forumcomm.com