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December 16th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

Crime-fighting priest hits the streets

By Kate Bolduan and Eric Marrapodi, CNN

It was the murder of 75-year-old Tom Repchic that was the final straw for Father Greg Maturi, a Dominican priest in Youngstown, Ohio.

Repchic and his wife, Jackie, were shot near Saint Dominic's Church in September. Jackie Repchic had to have a leg amputated because of her injuries and is recovering.

"We're a very close-knit family and try to help each other out however we can. You can go to Tom for anything," said his sister-in-law Rita Blasko. "It was a terrible day. Very hard. You're trying to mourn for Tom and you still have Jackie. It's very difficult. ...We just miss him, and he will never be replaced."

Surrounded by family, the pain of their loss still evident in their faces, Blasko said, "I don't think any of us will ever get over this."

Police investigators say it was a case of mistaken identity. Tom Repchic's car looked similar to the person the killers were looking for. Repchic was the second parishioner in just eight months to be killed in the shadow of Saint Dominic's.

"After the second murder, I said enough is enough. And I decided I needed to get more involved with the neighborhood because as goes the neighborhood, so goes the church," Maturi said while strolling the snow-filled streets of Youngstown's southside, the center of the recent violence plaguing the town.

"Whatever Youngstown has been doing up until now hasn't been working," Maturi said. "We need to take another approach."

So he stepped off the pulpit and into the streets to take on the crime where it lives.

He took a list of 20 homes to Mayor Jay Williams, saying the vacant properties needed to come down immediately. Williams agreed and added seven more to the list.

"I will not allow, we will not allow, these crimes as heinous as they are to define the city," Williams said.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams launched Operation Redemption to try to fight crime by ripping down abandoned houses.

They call the plan Operation Redemption. The initiative is simple but aggressive - battle the recent violence by tearing down the abandoned homes that have become havens for criminal activity, then hope to stem the tide of residents fleeing the city.

"At minimum it removes the blight, it removes the haven for criminals, it removes targets of arsonists. It allows property owners to recognize and feel like their neighborhood is being transformed," Williams said on a recent walk past several of the derelict properties.

Operation Redemption aims to rip down abandoned houses like this one.

Youngstown has faced many of the challenges of other Rust Belt cities. As the steel industry fell, the population shrank by more than half in the past few decades. The population hovers around 75,000, and Williams says he doubts it will ever return to the days when it was more than 170,000.

With the population decline came a huge increase in vacant and abandoned homes.

Abandon houses line the streets in Youngstown’s southside.

Jimmy Hughes has been a cop for more than 30 years. He is now the city's police chief and says urban blight has been a huge factor in the city's crime.

"When the house burglaries happen, they break into one house and they're stashing stolen property in some of these vacant homes. Some of the prostitutes we have in some of the neighborhoods, they're using vacant homes for their street hotels," Hughes said. "I could put a cop on every corner and it would still be the same. I could put a cop on every street and every corner and these [crimes] would still occur because we'd still be overwhelmed by them."

Youngstown Police Chief Jimmy Hughes, left, takes CNN Correspondent Kate Bolduan through the southside.

Hughes said he fully supports the mayor joining forces with Maturi. "If nothing else, the neighborhood knows, they believe they have a safer place to live with these [houses] not here," Hughes said.

Most of the homes targeted by this initiative surround Saint Dominic's, which many in Youngstown view as the last stronghold of the community. Maturi said it is not only his civic duty to step in, but also what his faith teaches him - to help those who cannot help themselves.

"We're not separate from the neighborhood. We're one with the neighborhood and the church is here to help the neighborhood," he said.

The city has promised that all of the more than two dozen homes on the initial list will be torn down by the beginning of 2011.

Both Williams and Maturi hope it's the first real, tangible step in the right direction to revitalize the city. However, the project has not been without speed bumps.

It costs the city about $3,000 to demolish each house, and federal red tape has slowed the process. The Environmental Protection Agency has required the city to conduct asbestos abatement in many of the buildings, which the city says is prohibitively expensive.

"The EPA is worried about lead in paint. We're worried about lead in bullets," Maturi said. "What's more important?"

All the while, some residents, including the family of Tom Repchic, fear nothing is going to turn this desperate situation around.

"I commend Father and I hope what he's doing will help, but I just don't see it getting better," Blasko said.

Surprisingly, with crime and murder happening right outside his front door, Maturi says battling the hopelessness among his parishioners and the community is his toughest fight yet.

"My biggest problem is not fear of being attacked by gangs or whatever. My biggest problem is keeping people from falling into despair and becoming cynical," he said. "That is a tougher fight than a physical fight."

By putting such a public face on a dangerous battle, some now fear Maturi has also made himself a target. But almost like a superhero in a comic book, Maturi quickly responded, "That may well be the case, but that's not going to slow me down. ...This is why I became a priest. This is what a priest does."

CNN's Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Death • Houses of worship • Mass • Ohio • TV • United States • Violence

soundoff (174 Responses)
  1. Kisha Teehan

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  3. Armacentaur

    i keep waiting in manila about the ship of David and im tired of washing the plates. the streets are full of unsurrendered spirits witches waste their lives and the witches armies waste thier lives irritating people in manila. cell sites and powerplants are all in danger. practicing witchcraft.
    Ha! ha! ha!
    feast celebration in manila of the Holy mother was terrorized again.
    send the helicopter and the armies to protect the offering of philippines.
    the mango tree that we need to bring.
    whats happening why are they not yet in manila?
    we cannot celebrate the feast anymore because its already christmas.
    and there are kidnap for ransom groups.
    problems in the sea?
    just the helicopter and inertia puzzle drop me at leon guinto st. corner escoda st. ermita manila in a eatery im washing plates.
    i dont know but you have to see manila and check manila.
    i will command but i need the ship
    and the refrigeration technicians
    im tired
    just head to manila
    this is not a funny game
    my mom a woman hurts
    i will surely bomb manila

    December 19, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  4. GODstrong

    I believe this is a great start, i work in this city and have had friends lose their lives due to the rising drug , violent crime epidemic. I have gone out of my way to support Father Maturi fight against crime and am working closely with him in this valiant effort to make some positive change. So i challange everyone, stand up, stand united and stand stong in the face of fear and dont let this continue. This is our town, lets begin the battle to take back what is ours people. Psalm 144:1 reads "blessed be the LORD, my rock who teacheth my hands to war, and skills my fingers to fight." Let the war begin.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  5. MrsB

    I shall pray for Father Maturi's safety and the power of Divine Intervention in his work.

    December 17, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  6. djrr55

    Sorry, make that "one broken window in a neighborhood"

    December 17, 2010 at 8:34 am |
  7. djrr55

    Ignoring the EPA and tearing down the buildings first sounds like something out of a bad action movie. In reality, if Youngstown were to do that, the city would get slapped with a sizable fine. Paying the penalty would consume funds that could be used to tear down addtional blighted structures. Demolition isn't the total answer, obviously, but it is a starting point. Cops and community officials often quote the broken window theory: one broken window in a neighbor that goes unrepaired is the beginning of a downward slide in property values and a rise in crime.

    December 17, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  8. Tim

    Crime is rampant on the earth, with the result that many have done unconscionable deeds. During Jesus time on the earth, there were wicked individuals, such as King Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded.(Matt 14:1-13) Later, the Pharisees sought to intimidate Jesus, saying that "Herod wants to kill you."(Luke 13:31) Jesus, however, did not deviate from his Father's purpose for him to fight "crime", but rather said that "to other cities I must declare the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this I was sent forth.”(Luke 4:43)

    Catholic priest Maturi, along with the Catholic church, has failed to follow Jesus example to "declare the good news of the kingdom of God." On the night before his death, Jesus continued to point everyone, including Pontius Pilate, toward God's kingdom, (John 18:36) a heavenly government now in operation, as the only true source that will bring "an abundance of peace" to the earth in the near future.(Ps 37:11, 29)

    December 17, 2010 at 7:05 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Tim,

      You said , ‘Catholic priest Maturi, along with the Catholic church, has failed to follow Jesus example to "declare the good news of the kingdom of God”.’

      The kingdom of God is the manifestation and the realization of God's plan of salvation in all its fullness. There is no other Church which has this fullness.

      The Catholic Church is the kingdom of God on earth from which all graces flow; Jesus established it so before He ascended into Heaven. We are Baptized and receive the Holy Spirit… so the kingdom of God can be found within us, in our soul, but mortal sin causes us to turn from the Holy Spirit and diminish His presence and should we die in that state, our Father in Heaven will be the One Who might cut us from the vine if we are a branch that produced no fruit or bad fruit; the kingdom of God is wherever Jesus reigns… He ascended into Heaven…the Kingdom of God is also found in Heaven.

      December 17, 2010 at 9:46 am |
    • Mark

      Tim -
      I live in Charlottesville, Virginia where Fr. Maturi lived before moving to Youngstown. You clearly have never attended one of Fr. Maturi's Masses and listened to his homilies. If you had, you were asleep. You make unjust claims based upon ignorance. Part of the "Good News" is God's Justice and His Mercy. When we are doing something that could jeopardize our eternal soul, we should want someone (like Fr. Maturi) to point it out. There is a time for preaching and a time for action and Fr. Maturi understands the difference and when to apply it. Peace ...

      January 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  9. Adored Maturi

    Father Maturi was assigned to our STAUVA parish back in the fall of 2008. It was sad for my wife and I when, after having been with us for only several months, Father Maturi was abruptly reassigned to head a priory at Youngstown. Probably because he was the newcomer among the three friars that we have at the time, he was the one sent by the parish office to bless our home, when we asked for one of the friars. We knew then that there was something special about Father Maturi. Both my wife and I were sad that he had to leave the parish before we had a chance to know him more. We felt that somehow it was a loss for our parish; and, we thought that may turn out to be a gain for Youngstown. Now we can see that it has been indeed a huge gain for Youngstown. Father Maturi is clearly someone cut from a different mold, and a cool guy at that. I hope the Dominican Order will produce more friars like him.

    God's grace and blessing be always with you, Father Greg. You will always be in our prayers.

    December 16, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  10. M

    But the Repchics were not shot right outside St. Dominic Church. They were shot while driving near Southern Boulevard and Philadelphia Avenue, several blocks away from the church. Check the reports in the local newspaper from the time of the crime. Do facts matter to CNN?

    December 16, 2010 at 10:18 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      M,
      Why are you so upset?
      Perhaps the Repchics were parishioners of Saint Dominic Church. Even if they were not members, the good Father cares about the town's people regardless who they are or where they live in the town.

      December 16, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
  11. J

    Okay this crime was horrible and my heart goes out to the family and it is a horrible thing to be gunned down while you are coming from church but the reality of the situation is how many murders and other crimes have been comitted within a 5 mile radius of that in the area in the last 5 or 6 years? I can only think of one other story that gained national recognition and that was the pewee football game shooting. I am glad that the priest and his church are finally getting involved and trying to help the neighborhood but in all honesty there was no outrage or community activism on all the crime until white folks started getting killed. I have lived many places in my life and Youngstown is the most racially divided places I have ever lived. Everyone sticks to thier own and takes care of thier own. As long as the crime sticks to a certain side of town and certain people are are hurt people don't care. They just chalk it up as being drug related and move on. That whole neighborhood has been crumbling around the people who have lived there for the past 15 years or so if not more. For the Youngstown area to have as many churches as we do I can only think of a handful of church leaders who have tried to do more outreach to the communities the churches are actually in and almost none that live in more well off neighborhoods here. The south side of Youngstown has been in rapid decline for almost 2 decades and the west side is well on it's way. This is just an unfortunate and sad symptom of the neglect, mismanagement and underfunding of the people that we have put in charge to keep us safe

    December 16, 2010 at 8:33 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      J,

      There must be Churches in other neighborhoods…maybe their pastors will get more involved now; all neighborhoods need to keep that ball rolling! Don’t wait for someone else to make the first move towards calling attention to what needs doing…write letters, make phone calls, demand officials look at your neighborhood, too. Keep it alive!

      December 16, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
    • Frogist

      @J: I'm sorry about the racial divide in your town. I know it happens in other places too. It just goes to show we can't ignore the poverty and crime because it's not "our" kind of people. Because eventually it will cross the street and affect everyone. The best thing to say is people are paying attention now. And I hope Fr Maturi gets together with other community leaders and city officials so they can all work in tandem to aid your town.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  12. Name*Lisa wood

    Bless this man!

    December 16, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  13. Mary

    I grew up in Youngstown and went to St. Dom's. My parents didn't let me to go the Catholic high school because the neighborhood was so dangerous. Fr. Greg is right about taking back Lucius and the surrounding streets. People shouldn't have to feel afraid to go to church.

    December 16, 2010 at 8:14 pm |
  14. St. Dom Alum

    Bravo, Father Maturi!
    I was baptized at Saint Dom's, had my first communion there, I was confirmed there and went to school there in the 60's. It was a beautiful place with wonderful people. The teachers were the best. The parish and school have a rich heritage and the church is among the most beautiful I have seen.

    God Bless. Be assured the saints are smiling down upon you.

    December 16, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  15. cr

    Fr. Greg was the priest at my parish in cville a few years ago, he is the absolute best.

    December 16, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
  16. jp

    Fr. GREG!!!!!! No idea you were up to such awesome things over there in Ohio! Come back to Cvill, we miss you!!

    To those of you who dont know fr. greg, just know that he's a baller, rides a motorcycle, and wears sunglasses

    December 16, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  17. Annunaki

    Has anyone noticed the irregularity in the top photo. I suspect that contractors in Youngstown build structures along the same principles as the rest of us, so I am wondering why the building in this image is a composite based on the lack of alignment of the window transoms. What is REALLY on the corner of this property that warranted such an amatuer photoshop job? More interesting than the article itself. Support your local parish – tax exempt status doesn't pay the hush money alone.

    December 16, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
    • chasm

      that is distortion rom the lens used. that is an actual building that sits on that actual spot. i grew up in that 'hood' and can assure you it is real.

      December 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  18. Nicki

    I am from Youngstown and someone needs to do something. Crime is horrible and Youngstown can be a scary place to live or even just drive through!

    December 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  19. smithy

    DRAKE ....this man is just trying to help... And so what if the area is mostly Black. I grew on a Farm in Western Kansas and our THUGS were white. Robbing selling dope etc!

    There are good people in that neighboorhood hood that deserve help especially the elderly.

    God save you if you ever need help!

    December 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • Reynolds

      I'll temporarily rescind my personal injunction against all caps and ask:

      What's more crime-prone, your TYPICAL majority white area or your TYPICAL majority black or Hispanic one?

      This isn't rocket science, unless one wants to make it so.

      December 16, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Reynolds: No, it's not rocket science to understand that poverty is probably the major factor not race. Or did you not know that this town is a population that is mostly white? The crime level only increased when jobs from the steel industry went away and people started losing their homes. Not when the non-white people moved in. The black population apparently has been around since the 1800s and the latino population grew in the 50s... and they are still a minority! Take your racism elsewhere!

      December 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.