December 16th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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