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Diocese says Elm Grove church's altar vandalized by evicted group

Congregation now worshipping in Lutheran church

Something approximating ‘God has left this place’ is written in Hebrew on the St. Edmund’s Episcopalian Church altar.

Something approximating ‘God has left this place’ is written in Hebrew on the St. Edmund’s Episcopalian Church altar. Photo By The Rev. David Pfaff

Feb. 15, 2012

The building long known as St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in Elm Grove is now in the hands of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, which claims that the altar was desecrated before the Diocese regained control of the property.

Leaders of the congregation known as St. Edmund’s Anglican Church, which had claimed ownership of the Watertown Plank Road property, said the congregation has complied with a Waukesha County court decision to vacate the church building, where it had been worshipping.

While the congregation has left the Watertown Plank Road building, it allegedly left behind what The Rev. David Pfaff, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, called a troubling message.

“As near as we could tell, it was trying to be Hebrew, saying something to the effect of ‘God has left this place,’” he said, “but more than the message, I think the troubling point is that someone would deface a sacred object like an altar, especially one that didn’t belong to you.”

Pfaff said the matter has been passed on to the diocese’s legal counsel and he didn’t want to speculate as to whether legal action would be taken.

St. Edmund’s Anglican Church representatives could not be reached for comment before NOW’s deadline.

A photo of a hooded woman sitting against the graffiti-stained altar in the church was posted on a Facebook page, along with comments related to the congregation’s move. The woman whose page it is has not returned a message left by NOW.

National perspective The former St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church sits vacant after a religious and property dispute.

The conflict is the outgrowth of a long-simmering, and sometimes emotional struggle that has gripped the national Episcopal Church and led to the formation of splinter Anglican groups following the ordination of a gay bishop almost a decade ago.

In a statement, St. Edmund’s Anglican Church argued that the deed to the building on Watertown Plank Road is in the church’s name, but a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge ruled in December that the Episcopal Diocese maintained control and thus had the power to oust the St. Edmund’s congregation. Nationally, the Episcopal Church has had success arguing in the courts that the Diocese is the smallest layer of church hierarchy and therefore retains ownership of church buildings, not the parish or congregation.

Pfaff said all diocese property is held in trust. When St. Edmund’s left the Episcopal Church in 2008, it essentially ceded control of the property — at least that’s what the court ruling indicates.

“They changed the locks and in effect took the property away,” Pfaff said of St. Edmund’s decision. “They can’t take the property because it doesn’t belong to them.”

The Rev. Samuel Scheibler, representing St. Edmund’s Anglican Church in a news release, wrote: “We honestly believed that under Wisconsin statutes the fact that the property deeds registered in Waukesha County for the church and rectory are solely in the name of the congregation and that a warranty deed was registered in 1955 by the Diocese of Milwaukee guaranteeing the congregation’s ownership of the property meant that the congregation owned the property. We did not want to create conflict, but sincerely believed that we were defending the higher ground in a matter of moral principle.”

Gay bishop controversial 

Some conservative Episcopalians have fought for control of the Episcopal Church in America after the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, a move that was later ratified at the national Episcopal convention. Some localized groups adopted the Anglican name as a reflection of the larger world church, the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member. The Anglican Communion has not formally sanctioned openly gay clergy. As this battle has played out across the country, some parish leaders have tried to take control of their local church buildings.

The battle has divided parishes, dioceses and the national church, with each group arguing that its stance is closer to the teachings of the Bible.

Scheibler said that the congregation has begun holding services at Elm Grove Evangelical Lutheran Church.

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