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Greenlawn congregation battles over church

The doors of the Bethesda Wesleyan Church were locked Sunday, as were the gates to the property. A lone security guard stood watch outside.

For the Greenlawn church, it was the second straight Sunday that a long-running dispute with the congregation's district leaders in Pennsylvania prevented services in the little two-story church on Lawn Street.

So, on a soggy Sunday morning, about 30 congregants gathered Sunday in front of the locked gate and bowed their heads in prayer.

"We pray to God to ask him what will be the next day for this church," said the Rev. Francois Pierre, who founded the congregation in his Huntington home some 35 years ago. "It is the Lord above who is responsible for what will happen to this church and to each of us."

The Wesleyan Church International - an Evangelical Christian denomination with roots in Methodism that claims more than 400,000 congregants worldwide - closed the chapel two weeks ago, posting an order from the Suffolk Supreme Court declaring it the property of the international church, not the local congregation.

Holding umbrellas on Lawn Street and wearing their Sunday best, the congregants - mostly Haitian immigrants - sang songs and said prayers in Creole-French. Many said this was the church where they were baptized, recited wedding vows and sent their children to Bible school.

"We want the church to be opened," said founding church member Marie Armand. "We don't want to be outside. Nobody understands this."

How the congregation lost its place of worship was not totally clear Sunday. Church officials at Wesleyan Church International headquarters in Fisher, Ind., and at district offices in Allentown, Pa., did not return calls Sunday. Michael Versichelli, a Uniondale attorney for the church, did not return phone or e-mail messages.

According to Bethesda congregation members, the story dates back to 1999, when Pierre, 79, retired as pastor.

The Wesleyan Church's Penn-Jersey District, which includes New York, appointed as pastor the Rev. Rochemond St. Louis, who clashed with some congregants, said Gerard Armand, a congregation trustee. Armand said St. Louis wanted to make "changes," though he didn't specify what they were.

In a brief interview, St. Louis said he was forced out of the congregation in 2005 and took a large group of church members with him. He started a new congregation that he says is officially recognized by the Wesleyan Church, and which rents space in a Presbyterian church on Pulaski Road.

"We were there, they pushed us out," he said, declining to comment further.

Later in 2005, the Wesleyan Church began to fight the Bethesda congregation over the two-story chapel. The larger church sued to have the property declared its own. The Bethesda congregation said it had owned the chapel outright since 1993.

Last August, Justice Arthur Pitts ruled the Greenlawn group had not complied with pretrial orders to turn over documents and awarded the chapel to the Wesleyan Church International. It wasn't clear Sunday why it took seven months for the Wesleyan Church to lock the doors.

J. Stewart Moore, the congregation's Huntington attorney, said his clients were working-class immigrants who kept poor ownership records. Moore said a Supreme Court hearing will be held April 10 on his motion to stop Pitts' order from remaining in effect.

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