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Like many others Thursday, a distraught Luis Montoto rushed to the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison with one question: "What can I do?"

Montoto and his wife, Lupita, had just learned that, because of budget cuts, the Madison Catholic Diocese will close the center, the church's most direct outreach to minorities and the poor.

The center helped lift the Montotos out of poverty 10 years ago by teaching them the skills to open a small business. She learned English there; he took computer classes.

The center's closure - and the abrupt way it happened - stunned the couple and other supporters. The center's four full-time and three part-time employees were told of the decision at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The center will close this afternoon.

"This is a bad time for this place to close down with everyone losing their jobs," said Rose Hill, 56, of Madison. She's a former nursing assistant who said she gets federal disability payments and eats at the center's free meal site about 10 times a month to stretch her budget.

All seven employees have been laid off, including administrator Andy Russell. While the diocese's financial problems were known, no one thought closing the center was a possibility, he said.

Adding to the surprise: The diocese built the center's $3.5 million home at 1862 Beld St. just seven years ago. No decision has been made about the building, said diocesan spokesman William Yallaly.

The 25,000-square-foot building includes a large community room, a dining room, a chapel and a computer lab. About 75 families come through its food pantry every week, and about 100 people eat its free meals three nights a week.

Russell said the center's annual operating budget is about $350,000, but he said there may be additional costs to the diocese that he's not aware of. Yallaly did not have a figure. The diocese's annual budget is about $5.7 million.

\ 'Terribly difficult'

Closing the center is just one result of a drop in investment income caused by the recession, Yallaly said. As he spoke, several of his colleagues at the diocese's headquarters were being told their jobs were eliminated, he said.

Yallaly did not know how many of the staff of about 60 would be laid off. Those who remain will take pay and benefits cuts.

In a letter to staff, Bishop Robert Morlino called the cuts "terribly difficult, but increasingly necessary." Morlino was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday at a Catholic symposium.

In March, the diocese made a direct pitch to parishioners, asking them to step up their annual giving to the diocese from $3.2 million to $5.9 million, an 84 percent increase. Results of the appeal have not been released. Critics of Morlino's tenure had urged Catholics to withhold donations.

Yallaly said the diocese will disclose the appeal's outcome in early summer. Parishioners have been "extremely generous," he said, yet "we knew we couldn't expect an incredible outpouring. People just don't have the money."

Closing the center was "the very last thing anyone in the diocese would want to do," said Yallaly, adding that the diocese will try to find other ways to help the center's clients.

\ 'Unconscionable'

At the free evening meal at the center Thursday, there was sadness, shock and quite a bit of anger.

"We're taught as Catholics to help the poor. I don't think this is a very good way to help the poor," said volunteer Melvin Baumgartner of Verona, as he scooped chicken casserole onto a homeless man's plate.

The suddenness of the decision leaves no time for a compassionate transition or for anyone to try to save the center, said volunteer Lucille Winters of Fitchburg. "It's unconscionable to just come in here and pull the plug when so many people need these services," she said.

Yet Steve Maurice, a center employee for 11 years who is losing his job, said the diocese was forced into a desperate situation. "This shouldn't be interpreted as the church no longer caring about the poor," he said. "I believe they will find other ways to fill the gaps."

A group of supporters on Thursday announced a vigil at the center starting at noon Saturday. Also, LaSUP, a Latino support network, has set a special meeting open to the public from 9 to 11 a.m. Wednesday at United Way of Dane County, 2059 Atwood Ave., to discuss the diocese's decision.

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