MINERSVILLE, Pa.—Like many Roman Catholics, Marie Lutkus felt anger, sadness and disillusionment after her beloved church was shut down in a consolidation of parishes.
St. Francis of Assisi had been her spiritual home since 1961. It's the place where she was married, where her children and grandchildren were baptized, where she mourned the loss of her parents and brother. So when the doors were locked in 2008, Lutkus couldn't simply let go.
Three years later, Lutkus and parishioners at eight other shuttered churches in Pennsylvania's Allentown diocese have persuaded a Vatican panel to overturn the bishop's decision to close them down -- an exceedingly rare reversal that experts say may signal a policy shift on U.S. church closures.
"This is a thunderclap. I am absolutely floored," said Charles Wilson, executive director of the Saint Joseph Foundation, a San Antonio, Texas-based group that helps Catholic laity navigate church law.
In a series of decisions that parishioner groups began receiving in January, the Congregation for the Clergy -- the Vatican office in charge of the world's 400,000 Catholic priests -- said the bishop had failed to come up with a "grave reason" for shuttering the churches as required by Catholic law. The panel ruled that parishioners must be allowed to use the padlocked buildings for worship.
"It does not bring the parish back to life, but it puts on the table what could be a workable compromise: to physically re-open the locked-up church as a Catholic place of worship," said prominent Catholic activist Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, which has spent years appealing church closures in the Boston area.
Around the same time as the Allentown decisions, the Vatican also rejected attempts by the diocese of Springfield, Mass., to convert three church buildings from holy to secular use.
While a spokesman said the Allentown diocese is seeking clarification about the Vatican decrees, Wilson and other experts said the decisions should give hope to other parishioner groups fighting to save their places of worship.
"This is the first major, official pronouncement by the Congregation for the Clergy that gives relief to American parishioners challenging the suppression of their parishes," Borre said.
It's unclear what will happen next.
Parishioners and diocesan lawyers in Allentown are still evaluating the rulings, and Bishop John Barres could appeal to the Vatican's highest court. Complicating matters is that the Congregation for the Clergy upheld the bishops' decision to merge parishes, the broader territorial units that include churches and other Catholic buildings.
Still, it's a completely unexpected victory for the parishioners.
After St. Francis closed, Lutkus, 58, said she became a "roamin' Catholic" who sampled many churches but never found one that felt right.
With other longtime members of St. Francis, she appealed the bishop's decision.
"We were aware of the odds," Lutkus said. "But I'm a very optimistic person and I always think that right wins. The most they would do to me was say no again."
Then-Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen had cited a growing shortage of priests in his decision to close 47 churches, many of them serving small ethnic enclaves in historical coal-mining regions of Schuylkill and Carbon counties.
Barres, who succeeded Cullen in 2009, said he was in "complete accord" with the decisions of his predecessor and adopted them as his own.
Parishioners at 14 of the churches appealed to the Vatican. Some parishioners complained bitterly about the process used to decide which churches would close. They also questioned why newer, more modern buildings were targeted while older churches were left alone.
Traditionally, bishops have been given a free hand to make decisions about church closures, consulting with parishioners but ultimately having the final say even as church law requires them to obtain the consent of "those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church."
It appears the Vatican panel, in overturning the decisions in Allentown and Springfield, has ruled that the bishops should have considered the rights of the laity in deciding to close the churches, according to Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and an expert in canon law.
"If that legal theory has legs, you could see more and more decisions to close churches being overturned," said Cafardi, former general counsel for the Pittsburgh diocese. "It's a very correct reading of the canons. It's just one that I've not seen before."
Barres' spokesman, Matt Kerr, said two of the churches never closed their doors and are still being used as worship spaces, "so we feel we are already in compliance" with the Vatican.
"The parishes don't exist as parishes anymore," Kerr said. "The buildings, in some cases, may have to be used for sacred purposes. What exactly that is, we're trying to figure out."
Felicia Pilla, 73, worries about what she'll find when she enters Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Nesquehoning -- another of the shuttered churches -- for the first time in three years. She said the water was shut off and there's no heat in the building.
"It's not a complete win, but it's a partial win," she said. "We succeeded in getting the building open."
Lutkus said she looks forward to the reopening of St. Francis.
"I would like to walk in there, and look around, and sit down and feel like I'm back home," she said. "I want to see it used for the reason that it was built. That's all I want."