- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

For the third consecutive year, a Catholic church in Hyattsville will turn down thousands of dollars in donations raised today during a gun raffle.

The Catholic Sportsmen’s Organization (CSO), which is based in Hyattsville, hopes to raise $6,000 during the raffle and wants to donate the proceeds to St. Jerome’s Catholic Church at 5205 43rd Ave. But the Archdiocese of Washington has ordered the church not to accept the money because a few church members are opposed to guns.

“The [Catholic] Church supports reasonable restrictions on guns,” said Susan Gibbs, communications director for the archdiocese. “Within the parish there was a strong conflict … so to keep peace within the parish, the parish will not be involved.”

The debate between the group and the raffle’s opponents began three years ago when a few parishioners complained to the archdiocese that accepting money raised in a gun raffle was tantamount to endorsing gun violence. Some of the opponents became so upset that they left the church and the Catholic faith.

But CSO members — all of whom attend St. Jerome’s — said they want to raise money to help the church replace children’s sports uniforms, tattered rugs and leaky pipes in the church buildings.

The CSO was founded three years ago by John Aquilino, a father of two boys who wanted to help raise money to replace the 9-year-old uniforms worn by children who participate in the Catholic Youth Organization sports teams.

“Hyattsville and Prince George’s County aren’t the richest places in the world. But our kids deserve the best playing fields and playing uniforms,” Mr. Aquilino said. “We are not as rich as Fairfax County, but our kids deserve just as much and nothing less.”

Today, CSO will host the 4th annual Father’s Day Weekend Sporting and Clay Classic at the Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Center, which is 10 minutes from the church.

The daylong event includes shooting contests and ends with a gun raffle.

This year’s prize is a Franchi Italian-made shotgun used for duck hunting.

“We wanted to find a way to offer monetary support so that our children would have alternatives to joining gangs,” Mr. Aquilino said.

Since it was founded, the CSO has raised close to $30,000 from a wide range of activities.

Of this total, about one-third has come from the gun raffle-related events.

When the gun raffle was first held, 40 persons — all from St. Jerome’s — attended.

Mr. Aquilino said this year’s preregistration numbers show attendance could surpass 100. The event is open to the public.

“This is something just like everything else that is competitive that people take part in. This is not something where people get shot at. [Opponents] make it sound like everyone walks out of here with a shotgun, and it’s nothing like that,” said Mary Elwood, a member of St. Jerome’s Parish Council who supports the event.

The lead opponent is Mr. Aquilino’s neighbor Peggy Alexander who was a long-time member of St. Jerome’s.

But she recently left the church and attends an Episcopal church, according to those interviewed for this story.

Mrs. Alexander did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Mrs. Alexander said she felt as if the church of her youth had turned its back on her. “To be 52 and a lifelong Catholic and to feel so betrayed by the church that you’ve grown up in — it’s hard,” she said.

Mrs. Alexander said her objections are based on what she believed to be the traditional church doctrine and that the issue came down to a question of morals.

“It’s a moral issue. It’s about putting more guns out on the street. It’s against the life-affirming doctrine that the Catholic Church preaches,” she said.

Mr. Aquilino said he organized the raffle because of the amount of money it could bring to the church compared with other fund-raisers.

He accepts the church’s decision, but said he has yet to hear of a fund-raiser that could raise so much money.

Miss Gibbs declined to offer an alternative, saying the church has other priorities.

“The parish works in a lot of different ways to legally raise money,” she said. “We are a family. We are not in the business of making the most money we can.”

This is not the first time Mr. Aquilino’s group has had a run-in with the archdiocese.

Because of the group’s ties to gun events, the Alexanders and a few members of St. Jerome’s Parish argued against taking any donations from the group, no matter how the money was raised.

In addition to the gun raffle, the CSO operates a food concession stand during University of Maryland home football games. The group has raised an estimated $26,000 since it began operating the stands in 2001.

“We were volunteering for anywhere from six to nine games a year, and it was all so that these kids could have a little something extra,” said Mrs. Elwood, who has three adult children.

“It was ridiculous to say they couldn’t use the money,” Mrs. Elwood said.

After a review, the archdiocese decided the church could accept the money raised at the football games.

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