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Details Of Hartford Priest's Removal Gradually Surface


March 01, 2009

The mysterious removal of the Rev. Michael Galasso from his Hartford church of nearly 30 years has lingered in the hearts and imaginations of his parishioners for more than two months now.

They've held rallies in support of the beloved priest, widely credited with saving St. Peter Church on Main Street from closure and for keeping one of the poorest parishes in the archdiocese going under trying conditions.

The popular explanation, the one many of his parishioners and friends believe, is that Galasso, in his untiring efforts to raise money for his impoverished Hartford parish, somehow ran afoul of Archbishop Henry Mansell over the bidding of a costly roof repair job for the church.

This explanation, which has spread throughout the various circles Galasso travels in — including the state legislature, where he had served as chaplain since 1975 — depicts Galasso as a selfless man of the cloth who worked tirelessly to raise money for St. Peter and took nothing for himself.

But parishioners' attempts to get solid answers from the Archdiocese of Hartford have been largely futile, despite repeated pleas for information. Their concerns about the future of St. Peter without Galasso at its helm — have grown steadily during his absence.

As the rumors have multiplied and the silence from the archdiocese has deepened, however, a few facts have emerged slowly from the fog.

Galasso is not — as the archdiocese originally stated — on sabbatical. Instead, he was removed from his job as the lone priest at St. Peter and flown directly to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a treatment center for Catholic priests and nuns with mental health problems or drug or alcohol addictions.

And although Galasso has told a number of parishioners that he is, in fact, being punished by the archdiocese for failing to get permission to put a new roof on the church, there is another, more complex story that Galasso has not discussed as freely.But in an interview with The Courant, Galasso acknowledged that in 2004 he assumed ownership — on paper only — of a North End bodega in place of a parishioner he knew had a prior conviction on food stamp fraud.

The Archdiocese of Hartford learned about this in mid-November, a few weeks before Galasso's removal from St. Peter. On Nov. 14, an attorney representing Maribel Diaz — a Catholic woman who attended a different Hartford parish — wrote to Mansell to complain about Galasso's involvement in the bodega.

Diaz, who purchased the store from Galasso, said she was financially harmed by the deal because she landed in trouble with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Internal Revenue Service. Through her lawyer, Diaz asked the archdiocese to pay her debts.

Twelve days later, Galasso preached his final homily at St. Peter to a stunned congregation and was whisked to the airport by a diocesan official and put on a plane to Maryland.

The Rev. John Gatzak, a spokesman for the archdiocese, denied that Galasso was removed because of either Diaz's complaint or the replacement of the church roof.

Instead, Gatzak said the priest is on "medical leave," though in the days immediately following his removal in early December the official explanation was that Galasso was on sabbatical.

"Father Galasso is a very, very sick man," Gatzak said. "The first time I spoke [about this] it wasn't clear it was medical leave."

Galasso, 63, offered various explanations for the decision to remove him from his parish, ranging from the unusual length of time he'd been stationed at his church — almost 30 years — to his failure to seek approval from Mansell to replace the church roof.

In a recent phone interview from St. Luke's, Galasso said he was given no choice about admitting himself to St. Luke's.

"I had to come. Under obedience, I had to come," Galasso said, adding that he must spend six months at the institute because he has behaved too "compulsively."

The Bodega Purchase

When asked if he was removed because of the bodega complaint, Galasso said he assumes it was a factor because his therapist at St. Luke's knew about the complaint to the archdiocese, leading him to believe that the archbishop's office had communicated with the treatment center about the matter.

"It felt like everything fell on top of me at once," Galasso said.

According to purchase agreements and documents on file with the secretary of the state's office, Galasso bought the business, which was named El-Cerrazo Super Market LLC during his ownership, on May 12, 2004, for $23,000, and sold it to Diaz on Feb. 15, 2005. According to their agreement, Diaz paid Galasso $50,000, but both her attorney, Stefan Stolarz, and Galasso say the money was never paid.

Galasso also claims that no money changed hands when he purchased the business in 2004. He said he agreed to be a straw buyer of the bodega to help his parishioner, even though he was aware of the man's criminal history.

Galasso said the parishioner, whose family was facing large medical bills, told him he needed someone trustworthy like Galasso to own the store, on paper only, while he ran the business. The man was also in the country illegally, although it is not clear whether Galasso was aware of that.

"He asked me if I could put my name on the documents," Galasso said. "I wasn't comfortable with it, but I said, 'I'll do you the favor for a few months.'"

But Galasso said that he wanted out of the deal when he heard the parishioner was applying for authorization to accept food stamps at the store in Galasso's name.

"As soon as I heard that, I said 'take my name off the store,'" Galasso said. "I said, 'I don't care who you get, just get me out of it.' I didn't want any part of that."

The charges to which Galasso's parishioner had pleaded guilty involved hundreds of thousands of dollars of illegal food stamp payments, according to court records and news reports at the time. He served 18 months in federal prison and was deported. He later re-entered the country illegally, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Courant is not naming the parishioner because there are no documents linking him to the Mather Street bodega — only the word of Diaz and Galasso — and because he is currently in federal custody facing immigration charges and could not be reached for comment.

In another strange twist to the story, Galasso also admitted that he would stop by every week to collect cash at the store, even after he was no longer the owner.

Galasso said he did it as a favor to all the "Dominican-owned stores" that were open seven days a week and whose owners couldn't get to church to make their weekly donation.

"I'd make the rounds and pick up $20 at each place," he said.

Sterling Reputation

As puzzling as Galasso's involvement in the bodega might be, the priest's reputation in the community is far clearer. He is widely credited with having saved St. Peter — the oldest surviving Catholic church in Hartford County — from closure.

In a lengthy interview more than a year ago, Galasso described how he chose St. Peter after spending seven years at St. John the Evangelist as the assistant pastor because he enjoyed working with the poor.

Although he could have chosen a suburban parish after spending his formative years as a priest living and working in the now-defunct Charter Oak Terrace project, Galasso instead chose St. Peter.

The church itself, a massive stone building that fronts Main Street near its intersection with Park Street, was slated for demolition when he arrived in the late 1970s. Membership had dwindled to almost nothing, remaining parishioners were worshipping at the school next door, and the archdiocese had long ago sold off the rectory to a local law firm.

The archdiocese figured it could reap about $6 million, he said, just by selling off the windows, marble altar, brownstone and organ.

"The archbishop gave me three years to see what I could do with it," he said. "Many said I was crazy."

His parishioners, who are angry with the archdiocese and grieving the loss of their priest, describe Galasso as a selfless man who lived in the back of the church and gave away anything of value he owned to the poor.

Parishioners also said that Galasso, in his final sermon, told them he had raised a $1.3 million endowment for the church and that the money would safeguard the church from the kind of problems it had when he first took over.

Galasso confirmed that, and said he believes he ultimately ran into trouble with the archdiocese because he became too "compulsive" in his efforts to help his church and wasn't following diocesan rules. When the church needed a new roof in 2007, for example, he sought bids on the project without seeking permission from the archdiocese.

"If the job is over $15,000 you have to ask permission," Galasso said, adding that the roof cost $275,000 to replace. The roof replacement was just one of the many projects he undertook while he worked there, he said.

"I don't think the poor should be living in squalor," he said.

Galasso's parishioners are still reeling from the loss of their priest and demanding answers from the archdiocese.

"We are outraged," said Carmen Matos, president of the St. Peter Parish Hispanic Council. "As a Spanish com- munity we have been mis- treated by the church so much. They don't care how we feel."

Galasso has prominent supporters in the community, including Bill Cibes, the former head of the state university system. Cibes, and his wife, Peg, have stopped attending or contributing money to St. Peter since Galasso was removed and they are angry there hasn't been more "transparency" in the actions of the archdiocese.

"Not every pastor moves into a room in the back of the church to save money. Not every pastor responds to those who approach him asking for support. And not every pastor makes as much of an effort to prevent the roof from falling in," Cibes said.

Parishioners are so upset about the way things have been handled they held a vigil outside the church on Feb. 8 to focus attention on what parishioners believe is a lack of respect shown to them by the archdiocese since Galasso's removal.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Bishop Peter Rosazza, parishioners said they have been "treated unfairly and with no respect or consideration." They also requested that Galasso be returned to the parish, that they be told whether the archdiocese has plans to close the adjacent school building, and that they be allowed to oversee the expenditure of the $1.3 million endowment.

Galasso, who did all four Masses himself on his final Sunday, said his life has been altered irrevocably since the day he was removed.

"I miss the people terribly. It was a real black Christmas for me. I was ripped away from everything," he said. "I've tried to be compliant since then. I just hope I get a parish where I can work with the poor again."

The archdiocese has said that when Galasso returns to work, he won't be going back to St. Peter.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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