Happy Outcome for Banned Parishioner

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by Christine Niles, M.St. (Oxon.), J.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  December 31, 2017   

"You all made this happen for me. Thank you so much!"

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BRANDON, Manitoba, Canada (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Canadian Catholic banned from her parish for more than a year will now be given full access to the sacraments.

Gwen Gumieny has been forbidden by her parish priest to set foot in St. Augustine of Canterbury Church in Brandon, Manitoba — located just across the street from her apartment — since mid-2016. According to Gumieny and several parishioners, the ban was based on malicious rumors, coupled by "persecution" from her pastor, Fr. Michael Savarimuthu.

Multiple calls and letters to the archdiocese over a year and a half went largely unanswered, with one chancery staff member, Laura Cumming, even threatening to sue Gumieny for defamation if she went to the media with her story.

After Church Militant reported on Gumieny's plight in September, drawing international attention to the situation, outraged Catholics voiced complaints to Abp. Richard Gagnon, head of the archdiocese of Manitoba. Shortly afterward, Gumieny got word from various sources inside the archdiocese that she would soon be allowed back to the parish, but no communication was made for several months on the matter.

Gwen Gumieny explaining her predicament in September 2017
 

On New Year's Eve, Gumieny received news that she is now being allowed back to full participation in her parish. 

"This morning Fr. Michael handed me a letter stating that I can attend all Masses, confession, adoration, and anything that is held inside the church," Gumieny told Church Militant. She explained that she still has "restrictions" with regard to being on church property, but went on to thank Church Militant "for all of your help and prayers."

"You all made this happen for me," she remarked. "Thank you so much!"

Background

On May 20, 2016, Gumieny was informed by Laura Cumming, director of human resources for the archdiocese of Winnipeg, that she was temporarily suspended from the parish, claiming that she had been "harassing staff, including two priests, and other parishioners at the church, as well as other hostile behavior."

Gumieny claims, however, that the claims of "hostile behavior" were concocted without basis, and other parishioners confirmed it was the pastor who was hostile towards Gumieny. The parish secretary, Pam Szmon, allegedly began a campaign of rumors and gossip that influenced the priest's attitude. When Church Militant contacted Szmon to corroborate the allegations, Szmon refused to comment, instead directing us to speak to the archdiocese — which remained silent.

Additionally, Gumieny's more traditionalist sensibilities — requesting that the priest inform the faithful they may kneel after receiving Holy Communion — were opposed, met with anger and derision from Fr. Savarimuthu. 

The initial suspension forbade Gumieny from entering church property except to go to Mass and confession. It also set forth a number of rules, including forbidding her from calling, emailing or writing letters to the parish office, priest or archdiocese "more than once per month," or asking others to call on her behalf.

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Handwritten affidavit by Anna Kowalczyk

On August 15, 2016, Gumieny was stunned to find a letter from Fr. Savarimuthu informing her she was permanently banned from the sacraments and forbidden from entering the property for any reason. He used as the basis of his ban an alleged anonymous letter sent by an unidentified source (a letter Gumieny was never shown), as well as the false claim that a fellow parishioner, Anna Kowalczyk, had gone to the priest at Gumieny's direction.

Gumieny categorically denies ever having asked Kowalczyk to speak to the priest for her, and Kowalczyk herself signed an affidavit swearing that Gumieny never asked her to speak to the priest. Both Kowalczyk and Gumieny went to the police to inform them of the priest's false reasons for banning her from church property.

"He banned me on a lie," Gumieny told Church Militant. 

Church Militant contacted the archdiocese of Winnipeg multiple times to clarify the situation, but was met with silence. Church Militant also spoke with Fr. Savarimuthu, who refused to comment, citing the Privacy Act. The priest urged us to contact the archdiocese instead — but the archdiocese remained silent.

"I have never verbally or physically threatened anyone at the church nor have I damaged any church property or ever been disruptive during Mass or anything else," Gumieny wrote in an August 2016 letter to Abp. Richard Gagnon, "and yet I have a complete ban and am not allowed in this Year of Mercy to walk through the doors of St. Augustine's parish without being arrested."

When Gumieny spoke to Cumming at the archdiocese once again pleading to be allowed to receive the sacraments at her parish, Cumming again rejected her requests, going so far as to threaten retaliation if Gumieny were to go public with her treatment.

"If you go to the media," Cumming warned, "we have every right to tell our side as well, as well as to sue you for defamation."

Gumieny has been allowed only once on church property, and that was for a longtime friend's recent funeral. Savarimuthu had initially refused to allow her entry, only reversing course after the deceased's family complained.

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Church Militant spoke with the deceased before his passing. Longtime parishioner Jim Ray said this was a clear case of persecution by a priest.

"The ban is a bunch of nonsense," he told Church Militant. "Gwen is a moral person," he said. "Gwen is a really good person; she never tells a lie."

John Villers, another parishioner, told Church Militant he believes the ban on Gumieny was "unjust." "I was floored by the ban," he remarked. "I can vouch for her character." 

Canon 843 of the Code of Canon Law declares the right of Catholic faithful to receive the sacraments: "Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them."

Canon 912 explicitly protects the right of Catholics in good standing to receive Holy Communion: "Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion." A Catholic may not be deprived of the sacraments without due process.

Gumieny had difficulty during the ban accessing the sacraments. Unlike St. Augustine parish, which is directly across the street from her apartment and the reason she moved to the area, the only other Catholic church nearby is a Spanish Mass, where Gumieny cannot understand the responses or the homilies. When she was able to get a ride (she has no car), she attended a Ukrainian Catholic church for Sunday Mass, which offers the Eastern liturgy. It is not within walking distance, however, therefore she was unable to attend daily Mass, available at St. Augustine.

"Saint Augustine's is the only English-speaking Roman Catholic Church in my city," she explained at the time.

 

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