A popular priest who is being forced out as pastor of a Georgetown parish by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, has groused publicly about his ouster, and his congregation is rallying to his defense.
Parishioners at the red-brick Church of the Epiphany, where Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry occasionally worship and manners maven Letitia Baldridge is a member, have demanded a meeting with the cardinal on the transfer of the Rev. Winthrop Brainerd.
“People were stunned, and they started coming up to me and asking what they can do,” said Gregory Doolan, chairman of the parish council.
Parish council members say they are getting no response from Cardinal McCarrick on their request for a meeting.
Cardinal McCarrick told The Washington Times that Father Brainerd is “a good priest” and a great deal of “thought and prayer” went into the priest’s reassignment. But he declined to discuss the matter in detail, saying it was a personnel issue.
Members attending July 3 Masses at the church said they were stunned to find a farewell letter from the priest in the Sunday bulletins.
“You will all know this was not my choice,” Father Brainerd wrote. Retirement “was forced upon me so that there would be ‘more vitality’ at Epiphany. You will excuse me if I say that I had not noticed the lack of it.”
The 65-year-old priest revealed that he was informed of his transfer on June 28, the 18th anniversary of his 1987 ordination.
During his eight-year tenure, Father Brainerd tripled Mass attendance, brought in an influx of young Catholics, negotiated the purchase of a new pipe organ, oversaw the renovation of the parish hall and raised funds for painting, new woodwork, pews and repairs to a church bell for the sanctuary.
As of Sept. 1, he will assist at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Silver Spring.
The archdiocese has reassigned 25 priests in recent months, spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said. The Rev. Paul Lee of Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in the District will replace Father Brainerd.
Father Brainerd declined to comment about his reassignment, citing his vow of obedience.
Catholic priests commonly work well past the age of 65. Cardinal McCarrick, who just turned 75, has said he is willing to remain in office indefinitely.
“We are constantly being told to pray for vocations to the priesthood, and yet here we are witnessing a good, holy and very able priest being treated as if he were suddenly of no use and being hurriedly shipped off as if to a nursing home to await his looming death,” Catherine Gunn, a finance committee member, wrote in one of several letters to the cardinal from parishioners.
Some members speculate that the Church of the Epiphany, one of the diocese’s smallest parishes, has fallen short of fundraising goals for Cardinal McCarrick’s “Forward in Faith” capital funds campaign, and, therefore, Father Brainerd must go.
“We’re just breaking even,” Mr. Doolan said. “But if we have to pay an archdiocesan tax, we wouldn’t be.”
Dean Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist who co-wrote “Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Ministry,” called Father Brainerd’s letter “very unusual.”
“It’s like an attack on the bishop,” he said. “It shows some kind of breakdown of communication. Normally, this doesn’t happen. Usually if there are serious differences of opinion, it’s done within house.”