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Eucharistic minister Rose Nowak and acolyte Sierra Stewart, 10, wipe their eyes during an emotional farewell service at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Rohnert Park , on Sunday, May 20, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Rohnert Park Episcopal congregation disbands after 36 years

At times Sunday, when the congregation members lifted up their voices, some voices broke.

Because although the pews were full, it was their last service together.

After 36 years, it was the end for Holy Family Episcopal Church in Rohnert Park, which fell victim to finances weakened beyond repair by a declining church membership.

"Heartbroken would be a good way to put it," Pastor Gail Cafferata said of the small and now-disbanding fellowship, which expects to scatter to churches in Santa Rosa, Kenwood and Petaluma.

"It's just been a really tough thing for everyone involved," said Leslie Manning, 49, who joined the church four years ago.

Rohnert Park's only Episcopal congregation, Holy Family has been involved in the life of the community in ways ranging from the co-founding of the city's food bank to a community garden that helps support a Santa Rosa homeless shelter.

But it has been under the same pressures that churches nationwide are experiencing.

The economic collapse put a big dent in giving. Older parishioners are dying. And younger people, as Cafferata put it, "have different ways of expressing their spirituality."

When Cafferata took over as pastor in 2003 -- the fourth in the church's history -- the congregation of 50 already was shrinking. It has since fallen to about 40 members.

"We've lost a lot of the older ones and they're the ones that brought in a lot of the money," said Shirley Gibbs, a parishioner since 1976, the church's inaugural year.

Even in the loss, there is hope, though, said Cafferata. Even as a group bound by faith disperses, a religious moment is occurring.

"As Christians, we believe in forgiveness of ourselves and others and there's always hope of new life following a death," the pastor said, speaking before the final service. "It's a sacred moment, of death, and then the hope of a new life."

But on Sunday, there was also, in the raw emotion of the end, anger.

"It feels rotten. We were thrown under the bus," said John Brankline, 64, a parishioner for 23 years.

His anger is toward the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, which, said Cafferata, by deciding it would not support the church financially, ensured its closure.

That Holy Family could no longer sustain itself became clear last year, Cafferata said. "There was no money to go forward," she said.

For parishioners like Brankline, that is a rejection of years of effort, emotion and money dedicated to building up a tightknit house of faith that began in a garage on a corner of East Cotati Avenue.

"We have a lot invested, and now we're just thrown out of our home," he said.

Things came to a head when the diocese had to step in to pay for a long-delayed roof repair and then decided to sell the church.

The congregation fought to survive, submitting a proposal to the diocese that asked for financial assistance so it could re-establish itself elsewhere.

"We wanted to stay together," said Shirley Gibbs, recalling when the congregation met in a garage that they dubbed "the chicken coop."

But the diocese offered much too little to make it work, said Cafferata, adding, "It's a sad situation for everyone,"

"We did offer money to pay for the rent in another location this year for them, to help them get re-established," said Britt Olson, the reverend canon of the diocese. "They chose not to need that offer."

As he prepared to enter the final service, Brankline said, "Maybe we'll learn in one year or two years from now the meaning of all this, what we're going through.

"It's devastating."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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