Schmidt v. Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, 2008-CA-00416-SCT.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtWaller
Citation18 So.3d 814
PartiesFrank L. SCHMIDT, Sr., and Henry W. Kinney, et al. v. CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF BILOXI, Thomas J. Rodi and Dennis Carver.
Docket NumberNo. 2008-CA-00416-SCT.,2008-CA-00416-SCT.
Decision Date17 September 2009
18 So.3d 814
Frank L. SCHMIDT, Sr., and Henry W. Kinney, et al.
CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF BILOXI, Thomas J. Rodi and Dennis Carver.
No. 2008-CA-00416-SCT.
Supreme Court of Mississippi.
September 17, 2009.

[18 So.3d 818]

Virgil G. Gillespie, William J. Blass, Eric D. Wooten, Gulfport, attorneys for appellants.

Henry W. Kinney, pro se.

Julie Jarrell Gresham, Biloxi, Stephen J. Carmody, Jackson, Kevin J. Necaise, Diamondhead, attorneys for appellees.


WALLER, Chief Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. One hundred and fifty-seven former parishioners of the St. Paul Catholic Church in Pass Christian ("Plaintiffs") filed suit in the Chancery Court of Harrison County against the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, Inc., Most Reverend Thomas J. Rodi, as Bishop and President of the Biloxi Diocese, and Reverend Dennis Carver, individually and as pastor of St. Paul Church (hereinafter collectively "Church Defendants"). Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief after Bishop Rodi effectively closed the St. Paul Church, which had been damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Plaintiffs asserted, in part, that Bishop Rodi held the St. Paul property in trust for the members of the St. Paul Church, that any financial contributions designated for reconstruction of the church were held in trust for that particular purpose, that Church Defendants had violated said trusts, and that Father Carver had made misrepresentations in soliciting donations for the rebuilding efforts. The chancellor dismissed Plaintiffs' claims with prejudice, finding that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based on the church autonomy doctrine of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs now file this appeal.1 We affirm in part, and reverse and remand in part.


¶ 2. The St. Paul Catholic Church was established in 1847 in Pass Christian, by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchical church, meaning that local churches are subordinate members of the general church, which maintains ultimate authority or control. See Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 722-27, 13 Wall. 679, 20 L.Ed. 666 (1871). The St. Paul campus expanded throughout the years, including the establishment of an elementary school. According to latest estimates, its congregation numbered approximately 700 members.

¶ 3. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The storm caused extensive damage to the St. Paul property. St. Paul's gymnasium and the St. Paul Catholic Elementary School essentially were destroyed. The actual church building was also damaged, although the extent of the damage is disputed by the parties. Plaintiffs insist that

18 So.3d 819

the church remains structurally sound, that many of its sacred articles were unharmed, and that repair costs should be less than $2.5 million. Church Defendants maintain that the church and its most sacred places were "destroyed in large part." According to Church Defendants:

T]he altar of God[,] where the miracle of the Eucharist is celebrated[,] was damaged[,] and the tabernacle[,] which is the repository where the Holy Eucharist ... is kept, was damaged. A dedicated Catholic Church loses its blessing, and thus, is no longer a Catholic Church, if it is destroyed in large part. Canon 1212 [of the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church] states, "Sacred places lose their dedication or blessing if they have been destroyed in large part. ..."

Because of this damage, Church Defendants claim that St. Paul ceased to be a Catholic church on August 29, 2005.

¶ 4. On November 27, 2005, Bishop Rodi issued a decree merging the St. Paul and Our Lady of Lourdes Parishes to form a new parish called the Holy Family Parish. The decree stated that the Holy Family Parish would maintain two church edifices, St. Paul Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The decree also provided that "[i]n accordance with canon 121, Holy Family Parish obtains the goods and patrimonial rights proper to Saint Paul Parish and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish as well as the obligations with which they were burdened ...." Pursuant to this decree, plans were initiated to rebuild the St. Paul Church, and donations were solicited and given for that purpose. More than one year later, on March 13, 2007, Bishop Rodi issued a second decree announcing that Our Lady of Lourdes would be the only church in the Holy Family Parish. This decision effectively closed the doors of the St. Paul Church. According to Father Carver, this decision was made because of a shortage of priests, and because Our Lady of Lourdes Church, unlike St. Paul, is located in a non-flood-zone area.

¶ 5. The future use of the St. Paul property remains unclear. Plaintiffs assert that Church Defendants intend to renovate the church and convert it into a community center, a public monument, or a memorial edifice. Church Defendants, however, claim that no decision has been reached as to what will be done with the property.

¶ 6. A number of St. Paul's former parishioners, including some of the Plaintiffs in the subject case, filed a canonical appeal through the Roman Catholic Church's ecclesiastical tribunals. On November 30, 2007, the Vatican issued a decree which stated that Bishop Rodi had acted in accordance with the requirements and procedures set forth under canon law.

¶ 7. As the canonical appeal process was pending, on May 1, 2007, Plaintiffs filed a thirty-five-page complaint in the Harrison County Chancery Court against Church Defendants, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, an accounting, and damages. Plaintiffs specified eleven prayers for relief, which may be summarized as follows:

1) Requested adjudication of whether Church Defendants hold the St. Paul property in trust for the benefit of Plaintiffs, and whether Church Defendants breached such duty by failing to properly maintain the church in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and by converting the property for a secular use, i.e., a community center, without Plaintiffs' consent/approval.

2) Requested adjudication of whether insurance proceeds stemming from property damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina, and donations made for the specific purpose of St. Paul's

[18 So.3d 820

reconstruction, are held in trust and must be used exclusively for rebuilding efforts.

3) Requested an accounting from August 29, 2005, of all contributions made to St. Paul Church.

4) Requested a determination as to whether Father Carver made intentional misrepresentations by soliciting donations to rebuild St. Paul, while having personal knowledge that the decision not to rebuild already had been made.

Plaintiffs further sought an injunction to prevent Church Defendants from converting the St. Paul property into a community center, or "selling, encumbering, and/or conveying" any portion of the St. Paul property, without Plaintiffs' approval.

¶ 8. On June 4, 2007, Church Defendants filed their answer and defenses, with a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In their motion to dismiss, Church Defendants asserted that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based on the church autonomy doctrine of the First Amendment, which prohibits civil courts from reviewing internal church disputes that involve matters of church governance, faith, and doctrine. Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116-17, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952). For support, Church Defendants attached an affidavit from Bishop Rodi, in which he discussed certain provisions of canon law. On June 15, 2007, this Court entered an order appointing Judge Thomas L. Zebert as special judge to preside over the matter.

¶ 9. On July 20, 2007, Plaintiffs filed a motion to strike Bishop Rodi's affidavit, or alternatively, to conduct discovery. Plaintiffs argued that their claim was purely secular in nature: Church Defendants had violated neutral principles of Mississippi law by seizing assets held in trust for Plaintiffs' benefit. They submitted that Bishop Rodi's affidavit offered no probative value because it focused solely on his ecclesiastical authority to consolidate the two parishes; a prerogative which they had not questioned. Plaintiffs characterized Bishop Rodi's affidavit as "primarily consisting of unsupported conclusory allegations" that he had complied with canon law. Bishop Rodi had not outlined pertinent canon law procedure, and had offered no evidence that he had followed such procedure. Plaintiffs alternatively requested that they be allowed to conduct discovery with regard to jurisdictional facts.

¶ 10. A hearing was held on Plaintiffs' motion to strike on August 3, 2007. On August 10, 2007, the chancellor issued an order denying Plaintiffs' motion to strike, but allowing limited discovery by way of written interrogatories. The chancellor agreed with Plaintiffs that Bishop Rodi's affidavit was conclusory and had limited probative value, but he refused to strike it. The chancellor found that if Church Defendants were going to raise canon law as a defense, they should be required to prove that they had complied with those rules. The chancellor thus held that Plaintiffs were entitled to discovery, limited in scope to: (1) the procedure required under canon law for closing a church; (2) documents reflecting whether such procedure was followed in the closing of St. Paul; and (3) whether canon law required church leaders to notify donors who had donated specifically for St. Paul's rebuilding about the change in plans. Thereafter, on August 29, 2007, the chancellor entered an order on discovery issues and a scheduling order. Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration of these two discovery-related orders, as well as a motion for additional time to respond to Church Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

18 So.3d 821

Following a hearing on September 11, 2007, the chancellor extended the...

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