Dec. 12 2012 12:00 AM

Petition opposes merger of Cristo Rey Community Center with St. Vincent Catholic Charities; two Council members concerned


A group of citizens opposed to a proposed consolidation of Cristo Rey Community Center with St. Vincent Catholic Charities is circulating a petition against the merger and pondering further action.

The group wants to meet with Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea, who is seeking the merger, and has asked the Catholic Diocese of Lansing for information on the center’s finances and management, but has not gotten an answer from the diocese on either count, according to group members Lorenzo Lopez and Al Salas.

Michael Diebold, communications director for the diocese, said he was “not aware” of any plans to meet with the citizens group and didn’t know whether a meeting with the bishop has been requested.

“I’m not the bishop’s secretary,” Diebold said.

Diebold explained that several months ago, Boyea asked the boards of Cristo Rey and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, “both of which are entities of the Diocese of Lansing, to come up with a consolidation plan.”

“That’s basically where we’re at,” Diebold said. “The bishop’s wishes remain the same.”

However, members of the Hispanic community have publicly opposed consolidation for fear that doing so would compromise the cultural history of the community center.

Salas and Lopez said the diocese is “stalling” the citizens group until the merger is a fait accompli.

“We want to put pressure on them,” Salas said. 

The petition calls for Cristo Rey to continue as a “free-standing Latino agency, maintaining its original concept of Latino control and self-determination,” with “appropriate Latino leadership” and “a safe work environment for employees, clients and volunteers.” The center’s interim director, Robert Vogel, is not Hispanic and does not speak Spanish. 

Diebold brushed aside these concerns, explaining that the bishop put a codicil on his request for consolidation directing that “a strong Hispanic ministry continue.”

Also, at least three members of the center’s board were unaware that Vogel, 65, has a criminal record for embezzlement from 1989 when City Pulse contacted them for a story in mid-November. Vogel, an attorney at the time, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $250,000 from estates pending in probate court, according to the Attorney Discipline Board of Michigan. Vogel’s law license was revoked.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, longtime Latino community leaders Rudy and Elva Reyes discussed the community center’s status with Cristo Rey Pastor Fred Thelen.

“It was more or less to try and clear up some of the fog, but it didn’t really help that much,” Elva Reyes said.

Reyes said Thelen told her the consolidation was ordered by the diocese, but declined to serve as intermediary in arranging a meeting between the citizens’ group and the diocese.

“Everybody wants to see some kind of transparency with that merger,” Reyes said. “That was one of the questions we posed to Father: Why weren’t the questions answered? They’re not outrageous questions. They’re legitimate.”

First Ward City Councilwoman Jody Washington said she “understands” the community’s concerns.

“They started [Cristo Rey], they want it to continue, and it’s kind of like being ripped out from under them,” Washington said. “They’re having a lot of difficulty getting together with people from the Diocese.”

Washington said she visited Cristo Rey on Nov. 19. 

“The whole thing seemed a little off to me,” Washington said. “I looked around and it seemed like just another social service agency, without a Latino feel. For decades, it’s been an anchor for the Latino community.”

Washington said she was disappointed when Vogel told her the Hispanic and Latino community was “doing much better” and had largely moved to the suburbs.

“Are you kidding me? I grew up in the area, and Cristo Rey was always about the Hispanic community,” Washington said. 

Lopez said the citizens’ group wanted to revive a longstanding Cristo Rey tradition of holding a dance and distributing fruit baskets to area seniors before Christmas.

About two weeks ago, at the request of the group, Councilwoman Carol Wood wrote a letter to Cristo Rey, asking to use the gymnasium and kitchen for the event.

Wood said she met with MaryLou Mason, chairwoman of the Cristo Rey Board of Directors, at City Hall and Mason told her it would cost too much to leave the center open and the center would not be available. As a result, Lopez said, the seniors’ event will not take place.

Wood said she is taking the group’s concerns seriously. She considers it significant that former Lansing Mayor Tony Benavides has offered to help Cristo Rey at no charge. 

“For the years that Tony and I were serving together on Council, he was director over there,” Wood said. Benavides was Cristo Rey’s director from its founding in 1968 to 2003. “He had several connections, people he could go to that were donating services and money.”

“If you’ve got a segment of the community that is stepping up and saying, ‘We’ll help be responsible,’ maybe that’s something that should be looked at before you look at merging,” Wood said. “There’s a real desire out there to make the center successful and have it continue to be the anchor it has been in North Lansing.”

Lopez said the citizens’ group is planning to seek financial and management structure information on Cristo Rey through the state Freedom of Information Act, at Wood’s recommendation.

Wood said the information would help determine whether there is a realistic alternative to the merger.