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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. Charlie O

    Bravo to Greg Maturi for freeing himself from the confines as a witness to sin and making a stand of intolerance.
    It is clear that a problem existed and He simply stepped out in front of His FEAR and faced the problem head-on. He most certainly should be used as an example for all of us to learn by. He set his FEAR aside, there for thinking of others well-being 1st, and therefore bringing to light a bright light of hope to a very dark community....

    December 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  2. nflcoordinator

    Way to go! This guy should take over Barry's job in DC

    December 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  3. Kevin

    I've never been a big fan of modern religion for a number of reasons, however regardless of whether you believe or not, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man for standing up so firmly for what he believes in. We need more like him in this country.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  4. Commentary

    This is a story of a man who's taking an unorthodox, but audacious, step to help the community in which he lives, yet there are some who will mock him because he's Catholic, a fact that is very remote from the purpose of his actions or the quality of this story. There are some who will make a comment in comically poor taste. What does this achieve? Nothing. You have no ability to see what some perceive as goodness in this story. You have only the ability to humor yourself. Do you think you're taking a progressive step in society? Do you think you're "bringing Catholicism to justice"? Do you think your inane, misguided attempts at comedy are anything useful or productive? No.

    This is a good story. Go Father Maturi.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  5. MARGE HAPPENS

    GOOD LUCK DEALING WITH THE GROUND ZERO CRACK HOUSE COMMIE JERKS THAT HAVE DONE NOTHING ABOUT THE CRIME IN YOUNGSTOWN FOR A SOLID DECADE THE LATEST MURDER RESULT IS- 2 KIDS NOW ARE LEFT WITH NO PARENTS BECAUSE THE FATHER MADE THE MISTAKE OF TRYING TO WORK AT A STORE IN YOUNGSTOWN AND GOT SHOT IN THE BACK BEFORE NOON-The GHETTO STUMPING DEMOCRACK LOOSERS THAT USED THE ST.DOM CHURCH MURDERS AS A MEANS TO GET ELECTED SURE DONT HAVE MUCH TO SAY ABOUT IT.THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE VOTE CRACK HEAD COMMIE DEMO CRACK FOR 50 YEARS.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • civilioutside

      Funny thing about writing in all caps. While intended to emphasize your point, the actual effect is the same as if you had simply written "Please don't read my complete post. It will be overwrought and probably won't make much sense anyway."

      December 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • Commentary

      Capital letters are more difficult to read, especially in a paragraph (?) without punctuation, sentences, or complete thoughts.

      By the way, this story has absolutely nothing to do with either politics or political elections, and "pun" names such as "DemoCRACKS," "RepubliCANTS," "FAUX News," "Barack NObama," are neither impressive nor are they intellectual. They completely erase any credibility within the rest of your comment.

      December 16, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  6. chasm

    This is the parish i grew up in and belong to and this is no PR stunt. This is a very real problem. I have been part of this congregation all my life and watched this nieghborhood, the one i grew up in, deteriorate into crime and drugs while the older population has become victim to the criminal element. it is sad when you can't even feel safe at a house of worship. If the epa is worried about lead content in the paint in these abandoned houses, what do they propose the city does? mayor williams needs answers and help, not roadblocks.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • Frogist

      @chasm: Maybe they ask that the demolition crews take precaution and someone inform the community about what's going on. Maybe they ask that proper disposal and clean up practices be performed. Maybe they ask that someone actually consider what they are doing instead of rushing in and not caring about those who are at risk for lung disease, or are elderly or very young or pregnant. Maybe a group of citizens from the town ought to ask the EPA to send a delegate to explain the dangers and what they need done. It's not all or nothing. This priest's vigilante actions only speak of a town that is not working together. Officials and citizens and the EPA need to figure out how to make his plan work safely. Or find an alternative treatment for the rise of crime in the area.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  7. ThunderBunny

    I'm sure I'm not the only one who hoped to see a masked vigilante priest when I clicked on this article.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
    • Andrea M

      Cheech Marin in "Machete" made a cameo in my head.

      December 16, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  8. bill

    This parish priest isn't hiding, he's facing evil down. "The only thing evil needs to thrive, is for good men to do nothing." Anyone who would criticize this man, is a coward.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • rufus

      The terrorists who won't let us catch them are cowards, too, according to Dubya and others. How did I grow up misunderstanding the meaning of the word "coward"?

      December 16, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
    • David

      @rufus: You didn't. Both are cowards. Of course, you notably worded it as "won't let us catch them", when what is really meant by calling the terrorists cowards is how they hide amongst civilians, perform heinous acts of terrorism against civilians and then run off and hide in tunnels, houses, caves, etc, forever afraid to show their faces.

      December 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  9. Bill

    There should be more and citizens like the good father. Our country seems to have born a minority of criminals and a majority of cowards as compared to the old days. The majority of good citizens need to band together in greaat numbers and clean up there neighborhood. Knocking houses down will not do it, the criminals just move to another location. Knocking heads together and turning them over to the police for trial after a good licking is what they need and not by one, but by the many. There was a time, the criminally minded feared their good neighbors more than the police or God. Today, the good people fear the criminals and the police.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  10. Paulmau5

    honestly how the hell did this make the front page of cnn? sure the priest story is great but please, just take a minute to compare the front pages of cnn.com and bbc.co.uk/news/. supply me with relevant world news cnn!

    December 16, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Paulmau5,
      World news? Murder, shootings, crime, war, hate….I find this story a chance to take a breath…and what a breath of fresh air it is! I say, give me more of this kind of news!

      December 16, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  11. Roman, Butler, PA

    No one will bring harm to this Priest who does the work of God. For his faith in Christ will save him.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • civilioutside

      It's a lovely thought... but drug dealers with guns don't seem to operate on the same metaphysical principles as movie vampires. So one can hope the good father gives ol' JC a helping hand by exercising a bit of caution. A vest might help, too.

      December 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Roman, Butler, PA,

      Many priests have been martyred throughout history doing good work. Father is brave and he sees what he must do. If people want to kill him they may do the devil’s work but hopefully the seed Father plants will continue to grow beyond anything we could ever imagine…and that is how the Lord works through us sometimes. We don’t always see the way God sees. But we can pray for Father's safety and hope for the best.

      December 16, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  12. CL

    Hmmmm....crime in Youngstown....thought they always went hand and hand. My father and mother grew up there and all I ever heard about was all the mob activity.....my guess is now that the mob has died out, gangs are taking over. I think ultimately the root of all evil is greed, and tearing down houses will not get rid of greed. Maybe a good action to try and push the activity away, but it's still going to continue to find a root until you can put them all behind bars.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  13. jb

    My prayers are with this priest and the town.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  14. wmsJAX

    The solution is complicated however, ...action will cause a reaction...good for the Priest's actions/efforts. All the churches, should take to the streets. Instead of meeting every Sunday for services and once a month for outreach/community services, we should meet once a month for worship services and meet weekly on the streets to make a difference in our communites and with our friends/neighbors. It seems Jesus spent a lot of time in the communities, not safe behind church doors or in meetings and counseling sessions with "other Christians". Where are the unbelievers? Go and find them & feed my sheeps.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      wmsJAX,

      I am a member of the flock and I go to Mass to be fed; one cannot do good work out in the public or anywhere if underfed. Once a month would be borderline starvation for my soul.

      December 16, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
  15. jane doe

    Hit the Wall Street if you're serious, Father!

    December 16, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      jane doe,

      Jesus was SENT by the Father with Authority, Jesus SENT His Apostles with Authority…so Father Matura was SENT by the power of Jesus also. Father Matura is not working alone.

      December 16, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
  16. MJ

    Its good to see that Greg Brady is kickin A

    December 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  17. DeadPeace

    Good to see someone doing something at least! I'd much rather see him waging an actual war against them, but somehow I'm not sure the Lord would agree. He's kinda funny about that, wish he'd have been a bit more specific about things like this.

    And what the ****'s up with the EPA? Are these guy's ****ing retarded or something? We've got much bigger problems there than some dinky little asbestos!!!

    December 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  18. patti

    God bless you and keep you safe father!

    December 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  19. Philo Cafe

    I hope Father has some tangible protection, such as a police escort. I'll say this for him...he must be a very brave man.

    December 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  20. Casper

    "And Shepherds we shall be

    For thee, my Lord, for thee.

    Power hath descended forth from Thy hand

    Our feet may swiftly carry out Thy commands.

    So we shall flow a river forth to Thee

    And teeming with souls shall it ever be.

    In Nomeni Patri Et Fili Spiritus Sancti."

    December 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Rocco and the MacManus family

      haha

      December 16, 2010 at 2:04 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.