Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Sunday, July 9, 1995



Beacon Journal staff writer

For more than a half-century, the state has provided a home on the rolling grounds of the Massillon Psychiatric Center for a Catholic Church, housing a national shrine and a religious charity dedicated to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill.

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, there's nothing unusual about a government-owned facility being used for religious purposes. Many state institutions, such as colleges, prisons and mental hospitals, are permitted to set aside rooms and whole buildings as places of worship -- so long as the aim is not to favor one religious group over another.

But St. Dymphna is different. While the state owns the bricks and mortar of the buildings, theCatholic Diocese of Youngstown has jurisdiction over the chapel and adjoining chaplain's residence.

Ohio gave up control in 1938, in an agreement that accepted the proposed church -- built with donations from area Catholics -- as a gift from the Diocese of Cleveland. The diocese included the Massillon area until 1943, when the Youngstown Diocese was established. In return for the gift, Ohio provides "heat, light, water and janitor service" and agreed that the 8,200-square-foot church of St. Dymphna shall "be used exclusively for the purpose of conducting ... religious services in accordance with the rites of the Roman Catholic Church."

However, over the six decades since the deal was struck, St. Dymphna has evolved into an unique institution -- one that derives its existence from both the state and the Catholic Church but isn't accountable to either.

State and diocesan officials say that the Rev. Matthew M. Herttna, the 74-year-old priest who became Catholic chaplain at the hospital in 1954, is the only person who knows anything about St. Dymphna's finances.

But the only one Herttna apparently has to report to is God.

The 1938 agreement says that the purpose of the gift was "for the benefit of the inmates of the Massillon State Hospital."

At the time, the hospital was home for more than 3,000 patients, about a fifth of them Catholics.

The hospital's population has dwindled to about 140, as the mentally ill have been moved from large institutions back into their communities.

Mass not well attended

While the chapel continues to provide daily Mass, the 23 rows of pews are mostly empty. Most of the two dozen worshipers there on a typical Sunday are family members of patients or other visitors.

But St. Dymphna is more than a house of worship for the patients and their families.

The church is open to the public because it was designated a national shrine in 1957. A year later, a 20-by-23-foot, rosewood-and-glass enclosure for a statue of St. Dymphna was built by the diocese in a grove of fir trees behind the chapel.

In 1959, the facility added a 1,104-square-foot office -- also donated by the diocese -- to house the operations of the League of St. Dymphna, a tax-exempt organization that solicits contributions worldwide for support of the shrine. If the idea of the state's owning a Catholic national shrine and headquarters of a religious charity devoted to an obscure 7th-century Irish princess and martyr sounds odd, that's because it is.

According to officials of the Ohio Department of Mental Health, which operates the hospital, there is only one other similar facility -- at the Lewis Center, a state mental hospital in Cincinnati. But that chapel, which also was donated to the state in the late 1930s, isn't a national shrine and doesn't operate a charity.

Fuss over perks

Had state officials been more familiar with the 1938 agreement establishing St. Dymphna, they would have avoided a legal fuss that threatened to cost the Ohio Department of Mental Health more than $92,000.

The problem began more than four years ago when Herttna, St. Dymphna's resident priest for more than 41 years, retired as hospital chaplain and began collecting his state pension. Herttna cares for his 92-year-old mother, who lives near Cleveland. But he said he could continue to work part time at the hospital and was willing to forgo pay in exchange for being allowed to remain living at the church.

That arrangement was challenged this year when someone -- the state won't say who -- complained that St. Dymphna was getting preferential treatment because it was illegal for Herttna to collect both a pension and receive free housing.

The hospital operates other religious facilities -- a nondenominational Protestant chapel, a Greek Orthodox chapel and a room devoted to the Jewish faith -- in a large building that once was the dining hall. But neither of the two full-time chaplains, a United Methodist minister and a Greek Orthodox priest, lives on the grounds.

Repayment demanded

Officials of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) agreed with the complaint and demanded reimbursement from the Department of Mental Health for the $92,000 in pension benefits paid to Herttna since he retired in February 1991.

But in preparing an appeal of the reimbursement order, state mental health officials were surprised to learn that the agreement with Herttna was indeed flawed -- but not for the reasons the complainant suggested. It seems Herttna had been cheating himself -- the 1938 agreement establishing St. Dymphna provided that the Catholic chaplain of the hospital live at the church for free. Herttna didn't have to trade his services for housing.

As a result of that discovery, since June 1, Herttna has been paid for his part-time work -- $15.18 an hour for about 15 hours a week -- in addition to his pension.

Armed with a copy of the agreement, mental health officials last week persuaded pension officials to drop the reimbursement order.

"PERS agreed with us that the 1938 agreement superseded" the 1991 agreement, said Sam Hibbs, department spokesman.

How much money is there?

Herttna may not need the extra money to support his work at St. Dymphna, but no one but the priest knows for sure.

That's because apparently only Herttna knows how much his church and the League of St. Dymphna receive in contributions each year.

One of the awkward aspects of the relationship between St. Dymphna and the state is that it's strictly a one-way street: The state may own the facility, but it doesn't have any right to knowledge of the church's finances.

The church and League of St. Dymphna aren't required to register with the Ohio attorney general because state law exempts church charities.

The league carries a federal tax exemption, but doesn't have to file a tax return because of its affiliation with the Youngstown Diocese.

But diocese officials say they don't know specifics about the finances of the church and the League of St. Dymphna, either. "We have absolutely nothing on that," said diocese spokeswoman Dotti Miller.

The Rev. John H. DeMarinis, the diocese financial officer, said he had never heard of the league. He said he had no idea how much money the league might take in because the diocese doesn't "receive one cent of that."

Nor has the diocese spent any money on St. Dymphna, at least not in the 10 years DeMarinis has been in charge of finances.

Obscure saint

DeMarinis doubted Herttna received significant donations, if only because St. Dymphna is hardly a household name, even among devout Catholics.

St. Dymphna was one of the saints -- including St. Christopher -- taken off the church's liturgical calender in 1972. That doesn't mean St. Dymphna isn't a saint -- only that the story of her life is shrouded in legend and folklore and lacks historical documentation.

"Personally, I don't think there are that many people belonging (to the league) and there's not that much money involved," DeMarinis said.

But only Herttna knows for sure, and he isn't saying.

Herttna declined to answer questions except in writing. His responses weren't specific.

Asked how many members the league had and how many people visit the shrine annually, Herttna answered that "no accurate numbers are kept. However, we can state that people come from all over the United States, i.e., on pilgrimages."

Herttna didn't respond to the question, "How much does the league take in in contributions each year?"

Members scattered

League literature indicates that members are from across the United States and from other countries. Testimonials from 11 members included in a package of league literature show they are residents of seven states, Canada and Mexico.

In an enclosed note to prospective members, Herttna wrote: "You and your family will have more peace of mind and be happier if you send for a novena booklet....I hear every day from our members being helped by St. Dymphna." Dues to the League of St. Dymphna range from $2 a year for individuals to a $100 life family membership. In addition, the league offers statues, medals, books and other religious articles for sale at the shrine offices and a religious goods store that Herttna operates on West Tuscarawas Street in Perry Township nearby.

Herttna didn't provide any expense figures, but indicated that the donations are spent "for the upkeep and maintenance of the shrine building and Meditation Park and for patients being discharged who are indigent of personal monies, and for employees' wages."

He said that "the shrine employs 1-4 staff throughout the year who handle secretarial assistance, mailings of literature, inquires about the shrine, etc."

Hospital officials point out that the operations of the shrine have never detracted from Herttna's work as a chaplain.

"His life's focus is the Shrine of St. Dymphna and caring for people," said Frank Fleischer, the hospital's chief administrator. "I have a strong belief in the religious and spiritual needs of the clients we serve."

© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal

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